Over the past two decades or so, world cinema has seen emergence of a film that anchors itself in a local idiom, bears its cultural signature and then positions its appeal to the larger, broader audience outside its specific contexts of origin.
Bollywood’s flippant, kitschy and fetishistic fantasies have long suffocated all other cinema forms in India. But a few daring Indian filmmakers pursue works that are grounded in realism, even imaginative realism of many dimensions.
Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga
Over the past two decades or so, world cinema has seen emergence of a film that anchors itself in a local idiom, bears its cultural signature and then positions its appeal to the larger, broader audience outside its specific contexts of origin. This kind of film is one of the hallmarks of the new world cinema, a byproduct of the festival circuits and patronage that maintains its appeal to diverse markets. The simultaneously liberating and constraining circuits of distributions make circulation of such films quite erratic. But when they break through, one notes a triumph over both market-oriented cinema of the spectacle (“Bollywood”) and art-house cinema, which, despite its formidable gravitas, remains attractive to smaller, specialized audiences.
Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga/Four Colours, is a triumph of that kind of cinema. It is a delicately woven yet sharp narrative set in rural Jharkhand where prejudice against the lower caste plays out with methodical brutality. The rural setting of the film speaks of a culture that is still ridden with moral corruption as much as it is with oppressive social relations. Power games circumscribe the roles of women as pawns of sex and desire. The innocence of younger generations gets crushed by the orthodoxy of traditions. It is India etched in space far removed from its urban sprawl or its polluted air. That it still breathes the wretched traditions is the claim of Mishra’s narrative, at once steadily mastered and deftly projected.
Dhaniya (Tannishtah Chatterjee – Brick Lane, 2007), an unmarried maidservant, lives with her two sons, Santu and Bajrangi in a village shack where they have a pig to support their livelihood. Their mother’s supporter is Dhaval (Sanjay Suri, also a co-producer of the film with Onir), the arrogant, self-obsessed, patriarchal overlord of the village.
Bajarangi falls for the patronage of Dhaval, and attends school, while Santu, resentful of the treatment his family receives, wanders around the village, harboring feelings for Dhaval’s upper-caste daughter, Mona. Dhaval’s bullying is typically systematic in the codes of oppression of lower castes, exploitative, merciless, and intrusive. Daniya balances her children’s lives while she falls for Dhaval’s lust. Dhaval bends two other women to his will, his domestically confined and suffocated wife Nidhi, and his young daughter, Mona. His power over the village is absolute just by virtue of his caste and heritage.
Mishra’s evenly paced, well-crafted script moves from scene to scene to slowly expose the nuances of everyday lives and stark wounds of the caste-system. The characters of Santu and Bajrangi open up to show the twin responses of compliance and rebellion. The mother, calculating and calm, knows the game of survival, until she is broken by the system. Santu writes a letter to Mona to accelerate the crisis in everyone’s lives. The film was inspired by a real incident in a village about a boy being killed for writing a letter to an upper-caste girl. Chatterjee and Suri are skilled masters of controlled emotions; her, a vulnerable survivor and him, a bully aiming for the prey.
Mishra knows the importance of unravelling the minor threads of the caste system: the ageing but authoritative, selfish and myopic priest; the inane customs of touching the feet of elders, until upper classes are taken aback when lower classes do so; children and women from the lower class commanded to do errands; and, the boundaries of religion and piety that keep the lower-class outside the margins. He is painting a composite image of a culture that has not shaken off its burdens. It is an impressively skillful, detailed image, embedded in a narrative that continues meticulously toward its resolution.
Mishra’s strong achievement here is to direct a film that refuses to be constrained by its biases. It is not an image painted to invite pity for shameful traditions, but neither is it meant to be critical from the safety of an outsider. This lack of posturing allows him to focus on sowing deep inside the film, hints for a different interpretive position.
We judge the film from the margins of the culture; standing on the thresholds of a world that understands that beneath caste-system, there is still oppression against women, circumscribing of social roles and the dogmas of religions. It is a steadfast and subtle surgery to uncover something that needs attention.
The film leaps to its conclusion in a way quite similar to the manner in which Tomas Guttierrez Alea’s La última cena/The Last Supper (1976) does, which dealt with oppression in a mode caught between satire and stinging critique. Mishra steps up to a similar challenge with a slow-brewing examination that shares much of the same political goals of Alea’s resolutions.
Mishra’s film, deserving of all manners of circulation, in and out of the film festivals, signs up for the realism that has ushered world cinema into its current, richer, more diverse phase. Its affinities for the nuances of village life and the dispositions of bodies and spirits bound by orthodoxy are parts of the experiences of people elsewhere. The film allows both, disclosing a cultural reality from within. but open to spaces of identification from outside. The film is a sample gift of the new Independent Cinema in India, poised to break the mold of reactionary realism that merely rejects the world around it without pointing to a different image.
Kanu Behl’s Titli
There was always some taint to the notion of poverty in India. Shameful for the rabid nationalists, it was a sign of the struggle in postcolonial times; a difficult problem for representation since poverty for the “foreign eyes” was always different than what it meant to the people living in the slums and villages.
The problem of representing that poverty was unique as it was difficult. Indian cinema post-Independence carved out its own style for the task. But the new poverty in the age of the neo-liberal economy and globalization has a stink to it. It is brutal, ugly, harsh and allied with similar suffering in other parts of the world. India’s prosperity grows in the shadow of its poverty. Kanu Behl’s Titli (2014), is a living testimony to that condition, fiercely laid out, with a sharp, cutting edge to its politics. It is not just about Delhi or the new townships that have grown on its outskirts, but it is a scream for attention to the poverty of globalization.
Titli is the youngest of the three brothers, desperately trying to “run away from this fu*@ing hell hole.” He is trying to save money by any means possible to buy a parking garage space in a shopping mall. His brothers, who live with their infirm, but intrusive father in a broken apartment in poor neighborhoods, are criminals. They hijack cars and sell them, beating, hurting and abandoning the drivers in the process. They are violent brutes, repulsive and disgusting. When a hijacking and kidnapping attempt goes awry, someone at the police station steals Titli’s money, rendering him broke again. His divorced elder brother asks him to get married so they could “have a helping hand in the business and a front” for their shop selling sundries. Titli is forced to marry Neelu, who, it turns out, is a reluctant partner in the family business of kidnapping and stealing. She is also “in love” with some “Prince,” but agrees to an odd offer to stay in marriage until Titli escapes from the rut he is in.
The narrative is an unending series of violent sequences in which all characters, Titli included, display limitless and heartless brutality. The assault on sensibilities is relentless, with each scene pushing the limits of what survival means in a circle of poverty and violence. Unlike the older stories of poverty and despair, there is no relief here; this is as gritty as it gets and as harshly realistic as portrayal of poverty can become. Violence is not sensationalist, but exposed in its material existence. There is no hope, not even for Neelu, who harbors some dream of escaping the marriage, the despicable family and a pragmatic but gradually cruel husband, Titli. The film maintains a pace of rapid intensity, combing a few ironic elements in its design (Neelu and Titli’s wedding ceremony and Titli’s new-found empathy for his divorced sister-in-law stand out as examples). Namrata Rao’s editing keeps the frantic pace, but keeps the broad tableau open.
The earlier frames of the film, tighter and claustrophobic, open up occasionally in the narrative, but as the collapse of the character continues, the backdrop of Delhi’s prosperity becomes more pronounced. The prosperity comes in full view as the already chaotic, violent and poverty-ridden world to which Titli belongs draws a sharp contrast. Titli, “the butterfly,” attempts to put his world together, as his devious machinations keep growing intense. The world around him stays the same, colder, brutal, but ever-so prosperous.
This is a crime-drama as much as it is a family play; it is as about violence as it is about the forces that made it possible.
Kanu Behl’s background as a documentary filmmaker allows him to further broaden the range of new realism of Indian cinema. This realism, unlike that emerging from Anurag Kashyap, is not a local denial of the non-realist tradition (rejection of Bollywood aesthetics). Instead, it is rooted in the realist currents of world cinema. It appeals to global conditions from a local perspective. In such a situation, there is no human agency; the social and economic conditions reign over the protagonists.
This is the second feature of realism in world cinema that Thomas Elsaesser speaks of, as it returns to push the limits of the photographic image’s capabilities to capture conditions. Here, the conditions are those of economic divisions; social depravity, and criminal abundance. Here it is, “life-as-is,” brought in full glare of its living dimensions, devoid of pathos or spaces of identification for the viewer. To that end, this is a significant contribution to world cinema.
The film made India’s entry into Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2014. For a debut feature, that is a great accomplishment. But to do justice to its main strength, the film ought to circulate beyond film festivals.
Shlok Sharma’s Haramkhor
Shlok Sharma’s Haramkhor provides a snapshot of parallel moralities in a small Gujarat village. Shyam, a married teacher has a relationship with Sandhya, his student, who just crossed the threshold of puberty. Sandhya negotiates her relationship with a divorced father’s new girl-friend. Young Kamal is infatuated with her, as his accomplice Mintu prods, nods and plots with his friend.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui inhabits Shyam on the screen, the immoral kernel of the story. He is simultaneously repulsive, cunning, callous, amorously indulgent, duplicitous, yet reserved with the full fire of his machismo. His transgressions are so flagrant and the encounters so intense that there are many moments in this film where a sudden explosion seems imminent. There is little privacy for a married man in a village, but on its periphery, with the windmills in the background, his desires erupt.
Sandhya’s father is the main police officer in town but Shyam is too close to their living space. To Sharma’s credit, he takes the viewer to the brink of explosive points. But their tension propels the narrative. There is no flare for melodrama, but a very dry, realistic tale of a range of emotions. Shyam’s is a complex character, holding much within him as he allows his power as a teacher to show the best of the worst instincts in men.
Siddiqui does service to the central character. An instantly “everyman” character as he is in many of his films, the longer he stays on the screen, the greater force he projects. He has a knack for nuances, subtle, sharp and at times very piercing. His Shyam not only has a male proclivity for bestial behavior, but also a license to allow us to peer through him to see that the transgressions are not just his; they are part of the cultural fabric he lives in. When a character like his collapses, he does so on behalf of everyone who crosses moral boundaries. This sort of persona of embodying the particular on behalf of everyman has become Siddiqui’s strength. This role reasserts it. Siddiqui is a true anti-hero of the new realist cinema in India.
Sharma knows this well too. He allows Siddiqui to paint the nuances, but holds back the full expression of his power. His portraits of Kamal and Mintu are in the same mold. Innocent, playful and mischievous, they are like all children. But the passion within them, hardly visible as it is in emotion-ridden adults, comes forth when necessary. The singular strength of his direction is in not overplaying the tensions of the narrative. We are always at the periphery of the conflicts.
Many scenes are filmed with the windmills in the background, standing as a signs of modernity. The village life isn’t transitioning beyond its borders to this modernity, but regressing back to its corrupt core. Compared to Shyam, Kamal and Mintu’s characters, Sandhya remains unexplored. She is a pawn in Shyam’s games, enticed by the lure of sexuality, and far-too-distant from Kamal and Mintu’s innocence. She rarely gets to assert herself in the game between corrupt and innocent moralities of the male characters in the film, old and young.
Sharma comes from the “Anurag Kashyap School of Realism” in Indian Independent cinema. He honed his skills as Kashyap’s assistant and his guru is also a producer of this film. Unlike his guru, however, he knows how to keep the conflict brewing without bringing to a boil. There is a different kind of strength in that talent. Some undeveloped clues keep the viewer engaged without the burden of resolving them. This is less a weakness than a consistent strategy to not tie in every little element in the film. If this is where our realism is going, then it is a sign of maturity.
It is one thing to give up the Bollywood glitz and glare and quite another to move the narratives into realms of complexities. The film, the director and the realism of the “Kashyap School,” come to us as a promise of a great career and more engaging, challenging films.
Gitanjanli Rao’s True Love Story
I watched Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow (2006), in India when it was just released in Cannes, winning Best Short Film Award in Critics Week. It was a stunning discovery of a film and an artist. The film is not merely a masterpiece in painted image, propelling an entirely new aesthetic and bright new parameters for animation. Besides its immensely meaningful skills in story-telling, the film was an exercise in cinematic themes; from the permeability of screens in our lives that would blend reality and representation to integral qualities of sound design in a narrative. Its invocation of the match-boxes for transposition of the past and the present, of life and death, was admirable.
Printed Rainbow made me ever-so-eager to see her next work. Her short, Chai, part of the online anthology project, India-is, reinforced the impression that Rao was capable of framing complex issues in simple yet eloquently rich frames, while remaining sensitive to the humane aspects of social life. It is a short story not merely about Chai, the potion that runs through the veins of India’s social life, but a piercing tale about displacement, homelessness and social justice.
Now comes her 18-minute short film, True Love Story, which premiered on April 10 at the International Film Festival of Los Angeles. It is a rewarding visual experience at the minimum, and a treatise on both cultural critique and social sensitivity of a filmmaker at its best.
This is her signature painted animation, rendered meticulously expressive by the intricate skills of the artist to reach into the minor nooks of the image to portray emotions in depth. Rao juxtaposes the contrast between the fantasy life of Bollywood films and the realistic conditions of some of its biggest customers, those who live on the streets. Bollywood’s larger than life image is already harsh, loud and excessive. The colors and edges of the figures lack the delicacy or the tenderness of breathing life.
The image of the man and the woman on the street, him a flower-boy selling to the customers in traffic and her, a mother preparing gajra on the pavement while she attends to her ailing father and a child. Rao’s choice of primary colors, set in careful contrasts among the characters, the street-dwellers and passers-by alike, intensifies the passion of her life in Bombay. Here, the figures are tender and graceful, caught in a whirlwind of motion and movement around them.
Some of the minute expressions on the faces of the protagonists are a joy to behold. When Rao takes the scene to a dance club, the nourish look encases a set of glamorous dancers on the stage, flickering light transposes the image from intense color to translucence. The spectrum of her images, richer in its nuance than any Bollywood spectacle, leaves the two worlds of glamor and reality richly laid out for a meaningful narrative.
Salim and Kamla fall in love. Their major idiom of love and relationships, of villains and victories is provided by Bollywood. Soon, they both realize that unseen parts of their lives are breathing underneath their everyday romantic selves. The conflicts of their lives are far more realistic than those on the screen. The displacement that placed them in their social positions, on the street and fending for survival by any means, is far more aggravating and real than the artificial crisis of the dream factory of the city. Rao paints the clash between the two in simple terms. But each frame speaks of the conditions in social dimensions. If this was just a love story gone awry, its script was already written by Bollywood. Rao’s touch on the desperate lives of the people who live on the streets adds richness to what may be just a pleasant achievement of watching beautiful animation.
This is a Bombay-ite’s film as it is a film by critic of Bollywood. That the two inhabit the same space with such skills foretells optimism of her cinema as well as those who support her. Filmed in visuals that are cinematic, with different planes of action active in the same frame, True Love Story is at Bollywood’s doorsteps. In its distinct image and familiar narrative the film straddles the two worlds while it also remains a special achievement.
The image and the narrative tell only a partial story of the film. Its prominent asset is its intelligent, multilayered sound design. This speech-or-dialogue-less film, employs a variety of sounds — the rain, the rushed traffic in the city, the whirling helicopter, the wedding band on the streets, local rains the footsteps and the dance steps, to name but a few — made richer by Rao’s sound designers P. M. Satheesh and Manoj M. Goswami. They have created decorous yet intricate and complex yet accessible architecture for this film. Additional Sound comes from the Laya Project, to Hindi film songs from Gulzar, Indiyar, the poetry of Faiz Ahman Faiz (in Noor Jehan’s voice), while on another level, it is layered by everything from rap songs in the car of the goon to the filmi songs that have become the soundtrack of city life in India. And, to weave all this so smartly in the film, sound mixing ought to take a bow its work.
It is difficult to be an animation artists in the age of Disney. Disney’s tentacles have long spread in India and financing projects that have original creative voices is quite hard. It is a shame that Bollywood’s commercial engine makes outcasts of quality animation artists such as Gitanjali Rao. Her worldwide success and recognition tells the story of the support she needs, the sorry state of similar productions and in equal measure the poor audience for independent animation films in India.
Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost
One of the earlier passages of Walter Benjamin’s elegiac meditation on the art of storytelling captures the essence of the cherished art form. The fourth “stanza” of that piece begins with an observation: “An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers.” The pragmatic dimension of narrative is not reduced to providing explanation, Benjamin remarks, but to move it from “living speech” to think of possible transformations, to explore “epic truth.”
Mainly known for its lament about the loss of story-telling in the age of fragmented information, Benjamin’s essay reminds the reader that a story awakens the truth through its imaginative trajectories, inviting the listeners to explore new thresholds, to see “a new beauty” in the forgotten past and to be open to new forms of truth. The gift of crafting imagination without trapping it in given forms sets storytelling apart from the succeeding forms including the novel and the media.
In the traditions of North Indian cultures, from the Pathans to Punjabis, the art of storytelling acquired a unique etymology in qissa. For the Punjabi culture, qisse became the oars for navigating the complex waters of life. Many a family gatherings or a yaaro’s ki mehfils were enlivened with the qisse pumping through the veins. Qisse contain the potency invested by Benjamin in storytelling. They evolve, mold, and follow uncharted paths, from the everyday to the profound. They adapt to the practical contingencies of life. Qisse grow and transform with the pulse of their times and their imaginative powers. Qisse can draw margins but they can also open up and expand thoughts. In their essential spirit, they keep thinking alive.
Anup Singh’s Qissa is draped simultaneously in a tale of a Punjabi man, the social realities of gender issues, and in the figure of a ghost that moves the narrative to a realm of new thoughts. He forges the spirits of Benjamin’s faith in storytelling, the dynamic traditions of qisse, the cinematic powers of imagination, and the necessity of social critique of the struggle between orthodoxy of tradition and gender issues.
Qissa is one of the most challenging and eloquent films I have seen from India in recent years. It defies taboos and shocks the spectator. It leaves you uneasy, shaken and displaced from comfort. At times, it leaves you confused. It is a mature film framed in complex narrative motifs, perhaps difficult for an audience who struggles with cinematic abstraction. But it is a formidable cinematic treat.
As the reviews so far make evident, the film is dismissed as an artistic indulgence with little consequences either for cinema or for the rigidity of mores that it challenges. But the film comes from a different world, from new thresholds of image and narrative, from a time of qisse and storytelling defined by nimble and potent narratives that draw their own limits and expand their own horizons. In this process, qisse kept the cultures alive, breathing and ready for change.
Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) leaves his home in Pakistan, full of bitterness and vengeance at his loss, but determined to make it back in India after the trauma of the partition in 1947. As he leaves, he poisons the well in his house with a dead body so the new occupants, the Muslims, may be poisoned. When his wife gives birth on the “battlefield” of displaced migrants, the father of two girls refuses to step forward to see the new child. “I have seen enough girls,” he says.
Umber establishes himself as a successful businessman in the Indian part of Punjab. As he waits for his next child, Umber is stubborn and steadfast in his faith that it will be a son. His sense of manhood depends on having a son. When his wife Meher (Tisca Chopra) gives birth to their fourth child, Umber refuses to admit that it is a girl. He names the child Kanwar (Prince). Meher’s words are drowned in his vain pronouncement that for him, he has a son.
So intense is Umber’s desire to have a son that he forces that gender on Kanwar. His wife, his daughters, the family and the community are commanded to follow suit. He ignores the physical signs in Kanwar’s body and all that matters to him is her outward appearance. When a grown up Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) plays with a gypsy girl, traps her in a shed overnight and is found with her next morning, Umber jumps at the opportunity to marry him off to the girl, Neeli (Rasika Dugal). He even insists that the couple “produce an offspring” to make believers out of everyone. His single-minded devotion to insisting on his daughter’s male sexuality drives him to a shocking transgression, one that finally drives Kanwar to stop her father in his violence. After saving Neeli from her father’s unspeakable indiscretion, the two break away from the family to survive on their own.
Away from Umber’s clutches, Kanwar and Neeli are free to discover the dilemmas of their gender identities. The uncharted territory of their sexualities cracks open the tense reservoir of emotions that find a range of feelings in their minds, on their faces and bodies. It is in this scene that Anup Singh presents the most complex and patiently ambiguous visual and aural tapestry of cinematic richness. Here, the narrative rests delicately in that intermediate space where the two women, their sexualities silenced, explore a new language for their relationship. Neeli says, “We are two women. Friends. Sisters.” But there is no name for their relationship. To name it is to limit it. It is to fall for another form of orthodoxy. The prison of language circumscribes the limits of being.
The scene is no less a reminder of another one of Benjamin’s thoughts voiced in the mystical context of his essay, “On Language as Such and the Language of Man.” There, he reflects that the language of thought, a mystical notion for Benjamin, loses its power once it enters the social being; the responsibility, then, is to recognize it and to keep it alive.
Naming this relationship between two women, as some reviewers have done (it isn’t ‘androgynous,’ or ‘odd,’ or ‘shocking,’ or ‘queer’ ) or, as many a liberal minded filmmakers have done elsewhere, falls short of the wisdom of the ambiguity in Anup Singh’s film. Such gestures foreclose the fluidity and the possibilities of transformation in the realm of social discourse.
These two women, sensually finding comfort in each other’s presence, but surrounded by trauma, are discovering the poetry of the moment. Kanwar and Neeli are not entirely at ease. Kanwar’s gestures are tense, shifting between anxiety and liberation. Neeli steps forward to provoke joy in Kanwar, her gestures seeking a response. Neeli, already a woman, enters another state of being in the presence of her groom/bride. Her body projects a sensual, joyous comfort while also inviting Kanwar to know herself the way she hasn’t known herself before.
Kanwar is on the outer margins of that realm where she can discover her sexuality, but is contained by the limits placed by her father. Anup Singh brings Qissa to the realm of a new language, but entirely mindful that it is yet to be written or rather, that it shouldn’t, and cannot be written. For a society so trapped in the strict polarities of gender, it is a thoughtful gesture, not a prescriptive one.
In their performances, Tillotama Shome (Kanwar) and Rasika Dugal (Neeli) deploy that as-yet-unknown thought with the nuanced fecundity of their bodies. It is a truly precious scene, holding within it the soul of a qissa and also of cinema that speaks without speaking, and shows without showing.
From the lyricism of this scene, the narrative of Qissa takes a turn. The film moves to a meditative realm not found in the narrative of Umber’s life. The troubled daughter raised as a son, now discovering herself with a woman meant to be her wife, must now confront the forces that brought her here. Singh adapts the device of a ghost that works simultaneously as a narrative element firm in the beliefs of the community, and a cinematic screen that brings contrition and reflection to the cultural and family crises.
Kanwar returns to her family home to see her mother, only to find the house burnt to ashes, and her sister Baali traumatized and haunted by the family’s tragedy. Here, Kanwar encounters Umber Singh’s ghost. Her confrontation with her father makes for the second scene of poignancy.
Kanwar’s sexuality, now disclosed, troubles Neeli’s family and the villagers, while it puts Umber’s ghost on a path to seek his own complex redemptive discovery. The Tale of a Lonely Ghost lingers on as a cinematic voice to appeal to Neeli’s soul: “Grief ages even a creature like me,” he says. The ghost can bring the past and the present together; it mediates between the events and the cause, between the seen and the unseen, and between oppression and liberation.
The figure of the ghost, as everything else in this film, demands a cinematic sensibility outside of preconceived, realist norms and expectations. The ghostly qualities of the ghost are visibly mortal, while his space and time are well beyond his corporeal existence. It certainly isn’t a ghost of popular imagination.
In his address to Neeli, the ghost says, “How many times do I have to live to tell this tale? Neither a man, nor a woman. Neither a human, nor a ghost.”
The ghost is a transferrable figure, a permeable screen that moves between one point in the narrative to the other. Not attached to a particular time or character, the ghost instead functions as a figure of tradition that looms large over all the characters and indeed the culture.
Umber’s contrition-tinged soliloquy is addressed to Neeli and not to Kanwar. His superstition for preferring a son to a daughter brought injuries to a woman, abusing her in a forced marriage, in the violent transgression on her body, and for suffocating her only relationship in a marriage.
He could have been contrite to his own daughter who was made into a son. But his contrition to Neeli is addressed to the gender of women against whom the injustice of gender preference is directed. It includes contrition to Kanwar, his wife, and his three daughters.
By placing the qissa of a Punjabi man caught in the pain of partition; by his abilities to inflict harm in displacing others from their zones of comfort; and by using the figure of the ghost to bring together the threads of the past and the present, Anup Singh’s film holds a mirror to a culture that still suffers from the trauma, though the mirror is held at a distance. The trajectory of this qissa remains open to its narrators. It is either to think of a distant tale from a forgotten and ghost-ridden past or as an allegory that speaks to the present.
The stunning chilliness with which Irrfan Khan portrays Umber makes the tyrannical oppression of his positions that much more fearsome. He is steely, graceful and majestic in his carnal self, burdened and vulnerable in his ghostly role. Watching Irrfan Khan has become an exercise akin to reading a book; there is a wealth of discoveries to be made between the covers and in the pages.
His familiar face is fully capable of causing shocks as it is in registering them. He uses his voice as an instrument of multiple registers. When Umber tells Meher that he will have a son, he is a soldier of patriarchy. When he returns to his old house in Punjab, his voice comes from a deep slumber of anguish. Irrfan Khan’s acting fortitude is complemented by a very capable cast, led by Tillotama Shome as Kanwar and Rasika Dugal as Neeli. Tisca Chopra’s Meher is luminous as a mother and honest in her portrayal of a compliant and troubled wife of a stubbornly oppressive, but loving father to her children.
Cinematographer Sabastian Edschmid’s light and color palette for the film seems to adapt the “Storaro principle” that light makes sculptures in space out of the objects, characters, and bodies. Crafted in meticulous frames, with objects lit on surfaces and contours, with darker tones in depths of spaces of frames, Qissa is filmed to create a lasting impression of color and figures. Cinematographer’s scrupulous control over light gives life to objects on the screen, while also painting the film with depth and time. Singh’s vision and Edschmid’s eyes make Qissa into a treasured cinematographic document. The script, written on silent but deeper wounds of an unspeakable but living injustice is committed to its economy and its focus. There is no wasted line, and no wasted scene in its unraveling. Voiced in euphonious Punjabi, the script layers the image for cinephile’s admiration.
A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Anup Singh is known for his earlier film, a tribute to the great Indian director, Ritwik Ghatak. This documentary, Ekti Nadir Naam/The Name of a River, is constructed imaginatively on a central conflict of the partition that preoccupied “Ritwickda”; it is a rare breed of a fictional documentary that allows Singh to traverse between the films of Ghatak and the literary, mythological and cultures figures of India. The film positions a crucial motif in Ghatak’s work, the river that witnessed the partition as a spatial and allegorical device to understand the traumas of history. In his nod to the events of the partition and in the image that speaks well beyond its narrative logic, Qissa acknowledges Singh’s debt to Ghatak.
In the images of the film, he appears to invoke preoccupations of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. The near-permeable layers between the real and the imagined structured around the presence of the ghost allow Singh to seek an image different from that of narrative realism. This is an impressive and bold experiment in constructing an image on two levels. First, it moves the ontology of the image away from its realist precepts, yet withholding it from its outer-worldly dimensions. The ghost of Umber is not in the realm of the supernatural; it isn’t experimental or abstract. It is a cinematic figure; it cuts across time and space, its situated-ness in one pointing to a different dimension. Second, by anchoring this image in a narrative, a living qissa, Anup Singh, negotiates new spectatorial spaces.
The image of the film does not assume a pre-given position of the spectator (as in realist, narrative cinema). The validity of the image does not depend on the spectator’s perception. There is something in between, a mysterious space for cinema where we can find new images and new spectators. This intermediate space between the image and spectator animated the practical and conceptual worlds of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. They both sought a cinematic aesthetic grounded in something other than the dualities of Western perception. In the West, such pursuit preoccupies philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for whom overcoming this dualism leads to the intermediate space between the subject and the object — the flesh.
Anup Singh has taken a big step in moving these pursuits to a different kind of cinema, finding a new image while also seeking a new spectator. This, in part, may explain the admiring yet puzzled reception of the film that is not as accessible as mainstream narrative cinema. That, in addition to its many distinct achievements, may be the lasting legacy of the film.
Shekhar Deshpande blogs at world-cinema.org