Qissa – Directed by Anup Singh. Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tilottoma Shome, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Duggal
The air was thinner in the defeated ‘homeland’ and it was difficult to tell whether the village was waking up after a silence of centuries or snuggled into a slumber finally. Once which had dined together in nights of splendor, was now dressed uprooted and usurped at nightfall, as death was having the time of its life in the dying embers of the hearth that had known many a merry ‘once’. As the days departs, the patriarchs make haste gathering sorrows and leftovers from their acquainted enemies, as one of the clan (Irrfan Khan), drag the corpse of a Muslim, and drowns his significant ‘other’ in the waters that have been witness to their happy times, so that in the memory of still-born future generations the slightest memory of the curse would remain. A perfect setting for a film having partition as the backdrop gifting identities of disillusion to the strange self and the significant other.
Such threatening uncertainty hovers around the narration of Qissa, the story of a lonely ghost directed by Anup Singh. Khan’s convincing portrayal of the tyrant, a ruthless patriarch who lives in self-inflicted ignorance of the female supremacy at acquired home. He is the ‘man’ who christened with marital sacraments held forth never a man, yet inflicted a manhood.
The patriarch’s trauma of encountering the unceasing flow of the (female) other and the coercive alteration of gender role, operate in the form of a guilt throughout the plot. The ghost adopts endless discourse and repetition of the guilt-story to attain a circular reconciliation with one’s self and the terrorized others. The search in itself is an investigation of the nature of guilt. Where does it begin? Can one trace its origin? Does it happen outside the masculinised territory of the family? Is a justification ever required for the animalistic instincts under the real history of Partition, for ‘poisoning’ the waters of the Pakistani ‘other’?
The film metaphorically begins with the parallel death and birth sequence of the others, the dead Muslim and the infant girl. Thereon, death enters the refugee household through the stolen furniture and the undying longing for the lost homeland. Displacement and the desire to re-root oneself introduces the ‘irrational’ want for the male-child. The illusory world of manhood constructed around Kanwar, the fourth girl-child in the family, diffuses her own definitions of sexuality and physicality. Here lies the fundamental problematic of the film. Kanwar, as a man to others (befitting the need of her father) and as a man/woman/no-thing to her/him-self, remains unsettled as a character till the end of the film. There is no definite desire for Kanwar- Will there ever be a separate desire in Kanwar for Neeli, moving from a woman to a woman, as non- man? Tillottoma Shome’s undecided, forceful male-mannered face enacts this division with such aplomb and dexterity. Irrfan’s Umber is not the ghost of the film (‘na admi, na aurat, na insan, na pret’), he is literally nothing, surviving only as an undead thing by itself. The disappeared identity of Kanwar, the burning of her menstrual clothes, the ‘secret’ of her body hidden from the mother, the guilt of killing the incestuous father, the inhibitions on performing the lesbian sexual act with Neeli, make her the only ghost of the film-one who is absent, formless, and authentically dead after disclosing her nakedness to the father. In an ironic Hamletian paradox, the father consumes the child here to sustain himself.
Umber’s symbolic devouring of Kanwar to return as the re-sexualised,non-queer potential father, remains one of the most blatant blows on autonomous sexuality in my recent cinematic memory. The film ends under a bizarre punishment, with the absolute absence of all the women, either burnt in the fire, taken by insanity, or self-killed.
Only Umber survives in the dark house, perpetually adjusting his image in the deformed mirror, and journeying with the corpse of Neeli from one place of guilt to the other, incessantly telling her the tales untenable and untellable.The interplay of light and shadow, the past in soft-sepia, the performance of the entire cast and the brilliant screenplay of Anup Singh and Madhuja Mukherjee make this an Art par excellence.