Directed by Anup Singh, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013) challenges viewer perceptions about gender and underlines the notion that identity is a psychological phenomenon linked with the emotional and intellectual development of an individual. The Punjabi-language Indian film — which avoids diatribes on sexual identity — begins with a realistic treatment but eventually veers towards magical realism. The Qissa screenplay displays economy of expression in the treatment of a sensitive story, and the unfolding of the plot resembles a parable that explores the intricacies of the human mind.
Qissa focuses on an eccentric individual, Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), whose life has been shattered by the pangs of partition in 1947 India. Now, after relocating to Punjab (where it took him four years of hard work to get back on his feet), Umber hopes to live life on his own terms and conditions. But when his wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) gives birth to their fourth child, a girl, he is unable to accept the reality. Umber decides to conceal the identity of the child and raises her as a son named Kanwar. In the process, Umbar ends up making the child a hostage to an identity constructed by his devious desires. As Kanwar (Tillotoma Shome) blooms into a woman, she starts to develop friendly ties with a woman named Neeli (Rasika Dugal). In a dramatic turn of events, Umber assumes that the presence of Neeli brings joy to Kanwar’s life and decides to get both of them married. But on the night of the wedding, Umber reveals Kanwar’s sexual identity to Neeli. Qissa contrasts the trauma of a woman searching for her identity with the cavernous desires of a preoccupied man consumed by his aspirations.
In Qissa, Umber’s state of persistent denial sets the tone for a riveting and conflicting narrative. In some ways, he may be a monster, but Singh and co-writer Madhuja Mukherjee find a path for the character that steers clear of outright condemnation. They chisel Umber’s tragic heir obsession with such absoluteness that he can retain the audience’s pity. The director stages most of the dramatically significant scenes between the primary characters within the restrained interiors of gloomy and cramped rooms; a visual metaphor for individuals cloaking their emotions with subdued gestures. In certain scenes — such as when the ghost of Umber looks at a mirror, or later when Kanwar dresses up for the first time in women’s apparel in front of a mirror — Singh keeps the surface of the mirror fogged with dirt and moisture to illustrate the turmoil of the characters caught in a maze of individuality and desire. The murky reflections of Umber and Kanwar epitomize the two sides of their thorny and fragile existence. While tackling the complex relationship between Neeli and Kanwar with sensitivity and discernment, Singh displays more compassion towards the latter character’s confusion and denial of her sexual identity. As Kanwar reaches adulthood, Qissa challenges the audience to question the character’s motivations. The complex layering elevates the film above its rather straightforward narrative and pushes it into the terrains of a taut psychological study about the skullduggery of power structures.
Singh’s directorial aptitude also aids in extracting poignant performances from Khan, Shome, Dugal and Chopra in equal measures. The most profound moments of Qissa highlight the playful relationship between the main protagonists as adults. Neeli has no shame or pity for Kanwar, especially after discovering her identity, but is instead full of unconditional love and understanding. Even the homoerotic overtones in their relationship are captured with a desire to be accepted simply as individuals caught up in quirks of fate. Both Shome and Dugal bring purity to their roles with understated performances as a pair of young women pushing through a world that is constantly planting obstacles in their path. As Umber, Khan breathes life into a complex feudal character in such a way that it brings a wonderful sensitivity to a weak and mean soul, and without turning him into a stereotypical villain. The late Khan endows Umber with a pronounced moral compass.
Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid creates a distinctive and elegant visual ambiance in Qissa that is excellently in tune with the mood of the story. He brings out the flavor of the milieu with an authenticity to the period of post-independent India with striking use of lights, shades and colors. The low-key lighting creates strong contrasts in the characters, sharp dark shadows in the exteriors and brings an overall gloomy atmosphere to the narrative design of the film. In addition, the Qissa production design by Tim Pannen recreates architecture, interiors and landscape with a realistic approach that is synchronized to perfection with the aura of the film’s minimalist period lifestyle. Composers Béatrice Thiriet and Manish J. Tipu create a thematic score on a brooding scale through melody and complex harmonic arrangements, which helps define the tragic dimensions of the film.
Qissa makes a strong statement about the patriarchal attitude that sons are prized possessions. Such dogged fixations are still prevalent in Indian society. By grounding Qissa in naturalism and avoiding melodramatic tropes, Singh creates a uniquely beguiling viewing experience.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.