Starring: Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Dugal, Tisca Chopra
Directed by Anup Singh
Set during the Partition (and its aftermath) in Punjab, Qissa is a powerful and moving, gender-bending film about identity, sexuality, reality and charades. Most of all, it’s about deep-seated patriarchy and its consequences on individual lives and relationships. The languid, serene narrative hides a staggering tension within. The language is far from the urban Punjabi we hear—it’s more rural and rustic, as though from another time. Yet it’s authentic: it manages to reach out and touch us.
Umber Singh (Irrfan) moves from Pakistan to India with his wife Mehar (Tisca) and three daughters. A man desperate to have a son, a true heir, he tells his pregnant wife quietly but sternly: “Kudiyan bahut vekh leen (I have seen too many girls)”. And then arrives Kanwar, the son he had always desired. The son he forbids to “cry like a girl”, who he wants to become like Gama Pehelwan and accompany him on his hunting spree, about whom he is so protective that he thrashes his own daughters like a man possessed. But are things as simple as they look? Or is Umber consumed by unfathomable delusions? Will he finally face up to the reality when the son gets married and daughter-in-law Neeli (Rasika) comes home?
Irrfan brings alive on screen a wonderful study of a man who is as much cussedly patriarchal as he is a victim of patriarchy, a man rendered weak and insecure while constantly living up to the ideals of masculinity, a man at the receiving end of audience hatred as well as pity.
On the other side are the casualties of patriarchy, the women—Tisca, Tillotama, Rasika. The Tillotama-Rasika camaraderie is especially astounding, the kind that’s rare in Hindi cinema. It’s a sorority that is built on providing strength and comfort to each other, a sisterhood where one sets the other free. Tillotama is perfectly hemmed in, repressed and melancholic as a character that lives in a constant denial of herself, and Rasika is luminous and lively as she decides to embrace her real self rather than continue to live a lie. She teaches the former to ask the most significant question: who am I? She encourages her to not hide behind but shed the phony garb, strip herself bare of deceptions. The most powerful moment of the film is when Tillotama, in a gender-bending turn, bravely embraces her stark nakedness. But will coming out bring her a new life or leave her vulnerable? Will she be able to defeat the destiny thrust upon her to begin her life anew?
The supernatural end, with its play between the real and imagined, does become a bit of a digression and is perplexing for the audience. It also leaves one with many questions: Is it all so irresoluble? Will the ghosts of patriarchy ever let go? Will they get forgiveness and be set free by those they quashed? Or will they remain in the state of limbo? Neither dead nor alive. One of the most beguiling films of recent times, Qissa captivates even as it confounds.