Anup Singh, 109 mins, India/Germany, 2013
Anup Singh’s Qissa: The tale of a lonely ghost is a campfire story no camper could tell. It is a fable that explores the suffering of aging cultures as much as the individual; a tragedy that looks into darkness and finds only more darkness. But at least, no-one gets smoke in their eyes. The lonely ghost is Umber Singh (Irrfan Kahn), a Punjab leader haunting the village he lost to Pakistan in the 1947 Partition of India. From his vantage point by the poisoned well, staring into the indeterminately rising or setting sun, Singh recounts his downfall with the detail of a post-mortem therapy session. He recalls the fall of his village, his wife’s inability to birth sons, and his decision to raise his newly-born fourth daughter Kanwar as his son and heir. We follow Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) as she grows into her father’s domineering shadow and walks with an unnatural gate. We wait for the fantasy to fall apart Director Singh’s movie is toned with the influence of its German co-production rather than the influences of Bollywood. In a colour pallet spiked with black paint, the camera drifts with hypnotic purpose. The outstanding cinematography can isolate characters in crowds as if they were forests and frame forests as if they were stray thoughts. Within the dreamscape come sudden jolts of shocking violence that are not at all graphic but framed with such emotional impact that even a sound effect can seem legitimately deadly. Yet this is not the sort of story that could be made anywhere except India. The film’s Twelfth Night or Orlando-esque setup is quashed by the conservative and introverted world in which Kanwar is raised. Comparisons lie closer to the warped patriarchy of Dogtooth. Umber’s manipulation of his collapsing local culture makes it frighteningly easy to believe that a girl could be passed off as a boy by everyone, including the girl herself. The film is filled with images of entrapment, from isolated prisons to corpses in wells to the bounds of regret that haunt the dead. Kahn (behind a sniper’s nest beard) and Shome give performances of terrifying conviction as they fight to hold their warped realities away from their internal isolations. If playing god proves an ostracising existence for Umber, it is liberating for the film-makers. With impassioned directing, writing and acting, it is hard to look away as these fictional lives go up in flames.
Written By: Scott Woodard, May 2014