By Subhash K. Jha
Film: “Qissa”; Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Duggal; Director: Anup Singh; Rating: ****1/2
Set aside the badla that beckons at the boxoffice this week. “Qissa” is a killer.
All our lives we try to be what we are not. Some of us lie about our sexual orientation to ourselves or to others. In one way or another every life is layered in lies.
“Qissa” is a film that strips through the layers of subterfuge that living on the edge entails. The partition of India ripped the country into two. In the film Irrfan, playing the Sardar Umber Singh with majestic believability, walks across the border with his family of a beautiful wife (Tisca Chopra) and three daughters.
The fourth progeny is where the plot thickens. Obsessed with the idea of a male heir, Umber invents a virtual life for his fourth born. She is no longer a daughter. She is Umber’s son Kanwar Singh who won’t play with dolls. But the dolls will continue to play with her, no matter how hard her delusional father tries to fortify the growing femininity of his daughter with aggressive clannish lies.
Anup Singh unfolds the bewildering and bizarre tale with an inevitability that simply dissolves all disbelief. In a society, culture and country that still favours the male child as the true inheritor of the family lineage, the message that “Qissa” conveys is both timely and timeless.
The drama created in the screenplay(co-written by the director Anup Singh and Madhuja Mukherjee) is so primeval,it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own drama. The director balances out the incongruities inherent in the theme with a great deal of compelling drama and primeval passion.
You can’t help being swept away by the deceit drama and passion of “Qissa”. Cinematographer Sebastin Edschmid shoots Punjab as a hotbed of political cultural and emotional turmoil.
Not surprisingly the last quarter of the narrative slips into a surreal mode, as Umber, now dead, returns to confront the son he never had. Finally the film is about the ghost of tormented guilt-ridden man trying to come to terms with the wrong done to a son’ he never had and A daughter-in-law (Rasika Duggal) he should’ve never conned.
Irrfan’s shared screen-time with his gender-challenged daughter are structured as a subverted tribute to the filial bond that ties all mankind.
Like destiny , “Qissa” moves in unexpected ways. The performances specially Irrfan’s, lift the high drama to another level of articulation where the characters appear to be conversing with their destiny without Edschmid’s camera peering into their souls. More than 70 percent of the film is shot in the night, as though the dark recesses in the characters’ souls were seeking a way to express themselves outwardly.
Emphatically evocative are the sequences where Tillotma Shome as Kanwar is locked away in her father’s crumbling ancestral home in Pakistan with his’ bride Neeli. As they try to figure out a way from his gender imbroglio, a glowering state of doom and indignation gathers around the film.
You know as well as the characters do that there is escape from the patriarchal arrogance that Irrfan’s character has unleashed on his family. In some endearing way, the theme of patriarchal tyranny in “Qissa” reminded me of Shoaib Mansoor’s Pakistani film “Bol”.
And though Tillotama Sharma’s gender challenged character never acquires the resilient tragic contours of Hillary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry”, she brings a very high dose of credibility and poignancy to her character, specially in her high dramatic sequence where her character stands naked in front of her father’s ghost asking him her true identity.
Rasika Duggal as Shome’s reluctant bride is deeply moving. And Tisca Chopra as Irrfan’s devoted wife who can’t give her husband the one thing that makes his life worthwhile, reminds us again of her staggering versatility.
But make no mistake. “Qissa” gets the largest measure of its strength and glory from Irrfan.
Like the ghost that follows the film’s gender-challenged protagonist “Qissa” will haunt you forever. It takes the patriarchal obsession with the male heir to a level of lucid expression where geopolitical dislocation and gender ambivalence are locked in a visceral embrace.