Friday, February 20, 2015

Qissa (2013)

In a nascent, post-partition India, a Sikh man (Irrfan Khan playing Umber Singh) with three daughters resolves to delude himself for the rest of his life - and then some - by making himself believe that his fourth born daughter is the male heir he has been waiting for. Suffused with folklore, "Qissa" is a story of patriarchy, unforgivable sins, guilt and no redemption.

The premise is so startlingly fascinating that writer-director Anup Singh's script tackling even the most foreseeable complications in the child Kanwar's life lends the film immense complexity. The girl (or, the boy,) oblivious to her condition, plays the central character in her father's fantasy.You can't wait to see what happens at every stage of the child's growth - from a privileged childhood, more than what was afforded to her sisters, to the confusions of puberty and the attractions of adolescence. Considering the father's unshakable determination to see this lie to its logical end, you begin to anticipate and, to an extent, predict the places the story would go. 

The partition era is such a great period for mining fascinating stories that it's a real tragedy that so few contemporary filmmakers venture to tell them. Earlier in the film, Umber Singh pushes a cart laden with the body of a Muslim man he fell, back to his own village. When inquired by the other men, he says he was going to dump the body in the well of the house he is leaving behind, to poison whoever it is who comes to occupy it. When questioned about morality and whether this action befit a Sikh, he says he has lost his religions identity. Maybe it's this act of  unwarranted vileness that comes back to affect him and his family since the day he arrives in Indian Punjab. 

It would be unfair to call "Qissa" a reflection of patriarchy in rural India, when it's quite evident just how deep rooted this issue is in every corner of the country. Earlier in the film, a midwife marks a girl's birth with the words, "Girls are also a blessing." Although what happens in "Qissa" is set in motion by general patriarchy, it's getting uprooted from their homes and being forced to start life anew that urgently spurs the need to drop an anchor or sow a seed - anything that would say, "I was here." And that anchor to Umber Singh, who like many others lives his life through the eyes of society, is to father a son.

As much as the film is about the father's megalomania, it's also about the unfortunate life Kanwar is born into. As a child, she shows a natural affinity to the gender that she was born with - letting her hair loose and looking in the mirror, watching her mother gracefully bathe herself, wanting to go out with her sisters for Lohri festivities. Then Anup Singh depicts what is expected of masculinity and the struggles anyone has to go through to live up to someone else's rigid expectations. Struggling for affection after becoming her mother's other child, Kanwar naturally adopts bullying as a trait as she mans up. But the feminine pull is stronger, especially since the household has four other women, and no amount of wrestling lessons, hunting and truck-driving appears to be enough to make Kanwar function without a sense of doubt about her identity. 

Deciding to marry Kanwar to Neeli, the daughter of a man belonging to the lesser, gypsy tribe, is the beginning of the end for Umber Singh. From here, the film goes on to become frightening, mysterious, poetic, oddly beautiful and, ultimately, truly sad. You are likely to hear from people who loved the film that it is haunting, because it absolutely is. Days after watching it, the film, its imagery and musical cues, still lingers in my mind. The film urges viewers to take certain leaps of faith, and I was more than glad to. The performance by Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra and Tillotama Shome is top-tier. The craft is impressive from the largely foreign crew. "Qissa" is one of the most entertaining and deeply satisfying films I have seen from India in recent times.