Though it’s an odd hybrid of gender parable, displacement meta-text, ghost tale and unlikely romance, “Qissa” packs enough punch to make up for its thematic disparity. At its best, this idiosyncratic drama on India’s Partition and a father’s obsession with having a son delivers such distinctive storytelling that open-minded audiences are likely to accept a certain degree of perplexity while appreciating the ways sophomore helmer Anup Singh conveys his potent message. Modest wins in Toronto (Netpac), Mumbai and Abu Dhabi foreshadow a healthy fest career, though theatrical play will remain limited even in home territories, notwithstanding the draw of star Irrfan Khan.
“Qissa” is the first picture to take advantage of the relatively new India-Germany co-production treaty, apparent from the large (some may gripe, overwhelming) presence of Western crew members in the tech credits. Singh first attempted to raise funds in India alone, but pressure to shoot the pic in Hindi rather than Punjabi made him look for alternative income sources. The title, Punjabi for “fable” or “legend,” is occasionally being appended in press notes with “The Tale of a Lonely Ghost,” though it’s an inaccurate reflection of the story and should be ditched.
Some awareness of the disastrously handled 1947 Partition of India is necessary for an understanding of the impact this watershed event has on the characters’ mindset. Opening scenes following a brief flash-forward show havoc in a Sikh village in the Pakistani part of Punjab, where the menfolk have sent women and children to hide in the flood plains as marauding goons attack residents before the handover is complete. Just prior to the forced departure into Indian territory, Umber Singh (Khan) throws a murdered Muslim into the well in order to poison the water supply of the new inhabitants.
Umber is determined to rebuild his life, in some ways as revenge for the trauma of exile, and soon has a large well-furnished home (it’s not clear exactly how he amasses his wealth). However, wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) keeps bearing him girls, and as he says, he’s unable to look at daughters anymore. When Mehar gets pregnant again, he convinces himself he’ll have a son; helmer Singh is commendably discreet, but it’s obvious that, despite Umber’s expansive joy at the birth of the long-awaited male heir Kanwar, the child is female.
Flying in the face of biology, Umber raises Kanwar as a son, his determination — and delusion — so complete that he gets Mehar and their two daughters to agree to the charade. When Kanwar (played as a child by Danish Akhtar) has his/her period, Umber hushes it up, piling on wrestling lessons and other manly pursuits to ensure Kanwar’s self-identification as male.
When older, Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) continues the deception, keen to retain his/her privileged place in Dad’s affections. Gypsy girl Neeli (Rasika Dugal) flirts with Kanwar, who teasingly plays along and entraps the dark-eyed beauty in a wooden cabin overnight in a beautifully lensed scene bursting with sexual tension. When Kanwar goes the next morning to let her out, Neeli’s father sees the two together and assumes his daughter’s honor has been besmirched. For Umber, it’s an ideal solution to his problem: Marry Kanwar off to a woman whose low-caste status would make her eternally grateful and preclude her from ever revealing his son’s true gender. Neeli, however, turns out to be less compliant than her father-in-law imagined.
Disclosing how a ghost enters the picture would reveal too much; a supernatural scene abruptly shifts the story in unexpected directions, dividing viewers who will find the plunge into the paranormal either a bold, wondrous climax or an unnecessary leap. Similarly, many will question whether Umber’s need for a son can really be tied to the trauma of Partition, since his propensity for dismissive and violent behavior against women surely is a trait preceding exile, notwithstanding the refugee’s need for control in the face of so much powerlessness. The director comes from a family sadly well versed in the traumas of being uprooted, and his debut feature, “The Name of a River,” also dealt with the Partition, yet his grafting of that harrowing event onto a tale of dictated gender doesn’t quite convince.
Nevertheless, “Qissa” has sections of great power, and its message of patriarchal oppression is movingly conveyed. A scene in which a distraught Kanwar, finally coming to terms with her gender thanks to Neeli’s loving support, exposes her breasts to a crowd, is borderline shocking and deeply effective, though it may need to be censored for release in India. Shome won an actress prize in Abu Dhabi, and her fearless perf combines gender assumptions so seamlessly that the border between male and female seems to fade into irrelevance. She’s beautifully complemented by Dugal, whose Neeli begins as a half-feral creature and soon turns into a fiercely independent woman with a boundless, protective spirit for those she loves. In some ways, Khan has the harder role, needing to make Umber a sympathetic man despite his delusions and brutality; that he does so says more about the thesp than the script.
D.p. Sebastian Edschmid (“The Last Station”) makes fine use of widescreen, with certain striking scenes, such as when the young Kanwar is playfully lowered into a well and pulled up again, leaving a lasting impression. Carefully modulated tonalities are well thought out, and while the lighting is often eye-catching, it tends toward an over-theatricality whose sharpness is made harsher by DCP.