There is a scene in Anup Singh’s Qissa when Kanwar Singh (Tillotama Shome) begins to flirt with Neeli, a gypsy girl. Now Kanwar Singh is a girl raised as a boy by her father Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan). Shome is a woman playing a man who is really a woman. It’s a beautifully controlled performance throughout. Just watch her being passive aggressive with Neeli and offering a front seat truck (the grown up Kanwar Singh is a truck driver) ride and how she attempts a cinematic pretend-pursuit and turn very reminiscent of any 60s heartthrob. (This must be early 60s with Kanwar born during Partition and at this point, in the end of his (her?) teens.)
The all round first rate performances in Qissa are just gravy. There is more to it than meets the eye in this extremely well written, fantastic sophomore feature from Anup Singh. The ghost of Partition hangs above the proceedings and follows every character like a wraith. Umber Singh was forced to leave his village in the Pakistan side to stay alive. Soon after he was uprooted, we see him flourishing in his new home and into the timber business, now uprooting trees for a living. He establishes a seat of power – literally and figuratively – so deeply entrenched in patriarchy that he doesn’t let a whiff of femininity creep into Kanwar Singh, ostensibly his only son but really the fourth daughter. He beats up Kanwar’s three elder sisters if they pick a fight with their brother, has a wrestling coach train Kanwar and just calmly notes how quickly Kanwar has grown when the confused twelve year old comes to him saying, “Papa, khoon.” The partition and displacement themes continue even after Kanwar’s marriage to Neeli that is dead on arrival. It reaches a crescendo amidst violence and a rape attempt at night and an exodus of the women during the day to rebuild their lives in a ruined fort like house. This symbolism and haunting mise-en-scéne is one of the most affecting takeaways from Qissa. There are quite a few wide angle shots that Singh employs and the camera only observes and never makes a judgement.
Singh also has a thing for symmetry in events. The relationship between Kanwar and Neeli begins with a slap on the face and reaches its apotheosis with another. Umber Singh places a young Kanwar on a bucket and sends him down a well and there is a similar shot in the end with Kanwar and Umber and a lonely puddle of water. There is much to be said about Partition and its long term effect, how people live a whole life trying to find themselves or running away from themselves. This is captured in a splendid manner by Umber Singh’s continued malefic presence all through Kanwar’s life. There is a case to be made for some tonal inconsistency when the film enters the magic realm but this shift lends itself to a reading that is very much valid within the film’s universe.
Qissa ultimately succeeds in depicting the silent madness that Partition bequeathed to the displaced. It does so in its own funereal but observant way with writing that intently goes around in circles capturing the nature of the impact. This also works because it establishes that the true gravity of the events would never be felt or understood by the outsiders. While everyone from Irrfan Khan to Rasika Dugal – who plays Neeli – shines, the photography and direction, not to mention the sepulchral score, make a stunning team.