Qissa is an Arabic word which means ‘folk tale.’ Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is a film that presents a certain form of folk storytelling exemplified through tragic love legends like Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu and so on. As in that form of narration, it gets into transgressions and interventions, sometimes unpredictable, sometimes open-ended, and sometimes closed.

“The story and script jointly done by Madhuja Mukherjee and me flows along and invites the audience to jump into the flow and participate in the story,” says director Anup Singh about Qissa. Singh, a FTII graduate was born in Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania into a Punjabi Sikh family where his grandfather had migrated during the Partition. Their forced displacement is one of the main sources of inspiration for Qissa.

Placing the story of the film in a broader perspective, one can see a glimmer of the universal tragedy that Partition can bring about, not only in the lives of people affected by such geographical and political schisms but also in their ideology and their way of thinking.

Pic courtesy: NFDC

Qissa, in fact, tells two stories of displacement. The first involves the forced displacement of Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), a Sikh, and his family as a consequence of the religious violence following the Partition of India in 1947.

The second story of displacement is incredible in its inhumanity and brutality. It speaks of Umber Singh’s manic obsession for a male heir to carry on his bloodline and how it wrecks the lives of his close ones, especially of Kanwar (Tilottama Shome), his fourth-born whose entire life is ‘manufactured’, manipulated, designed and dictated by her father’s for a male heir.

The heartrending story of Kanwar

Umber’s wife Meher (Tisca Chopra) gives birth to three daughters. When she is pregnant for the fourth time, Umber Singh is confident that this time, she will deliver a boy. He remains present at the delivery, takes the new-born from the mother’s lap and declares it is a boy.

“It would be better if you killed her,” cries his wife, in vain because she alone knows that the new-born is a girl. Umber convinces himself that the child is really a boy creating a tragic cage to trap himself in, never wanting to set himself free. How can he? He does not even know that he is caged within his obsession. Thus, the film reaches beyond Partition and folk tales to cross over to other areas of human psychology, of patriarchy strongly embedded in the mindset of the protagonist.

Does Kanwar know she is a girl? The film leaves this question open till she is married off. Do Kanwar’s sisters know that the little one is not their brother but their sister? Did Umber Singh bother to get his three daughters married? That too, remains hazy. These questions are suggested throughout the film but not answered leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Kanwar grows up under her fiercely protective father, confused about her identity – social, sexual and otherwise – because she is kept distanced from her older sisters. To find out why, she sometimes peeps when one of them is bathing. Umber acquires the services of a wrestler to teach his youngest wrestling, who accepts everything without question, including the secret of her beginning to menstruate. Her father asks her not to tell her mother about this and the secret remains between father and daughter.

Kanwar grows up to become a truck driver and develops a fine camaraderie with her doting father who now wants to marry her off. Kanwar is attracted to Nili, the daughter of the head of a gypsy group that sings and dances at weddings and festivals. Nili likes Kanwar too and the two are married off and Umber Singh’s carefully nurtured castle of secrets comes tumbling down.

Nili and Kanwar still like each other but Nili refuses to remain trapped in a marriage that will never be consummated. She tries to run away one night and a desperate Umber chases her and tries to rape her for that mandatory male heir that Kanwar cannot sire. Kanwar shoots him down and with her mother’s help, and the two run away to Meher’s ancestral home in another village.

In the new place, a sisterhood is born between Kanwar and Neeli. But much though Neeli tries to convert Kanwar into a girl, Kanwar finds it repulsive physically and mentally to fit into the new clothes, to leave her long hair loose, because she has been conditioned to grow up as a boy. “When I wore that dress of yours, I felt as if scorpions were crawling all over me,” she says.

As curiosity among the new neighbourhood about Kanwar’s gender and sex begins to escalate, Kanwar goes back to the village to bring back her mother but discovers that she died in a fire. One of her three sisters has lost her mind and is wandering around. Umber’s ghost follows Kanwar back intent on that male heir and Kanwar fails to rid herself of this ghost. 

The film closes on a surrealistic note of magic realism where the identities of Umber and Kanwar merge into one and the stronger Umber overcomes and submerges the weak, vulnerable and perennially confused Kanwar within himself forever. Nili, the most innocent of them all but also the strongest, looks on incredibly at this ghost of a man and jumps off the parapet of the ruins of the old home.

Qissa is a very dark film that moves from one dark area to the next, winding its way through the helpless, unhappy world the characters live in – Meher, the three daughters, but most importantly, the fiercely obsessed Umber and his hapless daughter Kanwar. Nili (Rasika Dugal) who finds she is married to a girl is the final victim of Umber’s insanity.

Tilottama Shome as the grown Kanwar sustains restraint throughout her performance, her body language, her facial expression, her eyes spelling out the tragedy of her confused state. She is not only confused about her identity but also about her total surrender to her father’s dictates, wanting to question but conditioned by training and discipline not to. This is perhaps the most extra-ordinary character any actress could have had the opportunity of essaying, and she has justified the director’s choice and faith. .

Irrfan Khan’s multi-layered performance as Umber Singh, contrary to expectations, evokes more sympathy than hate. One is left with the question – who, really, is the victim? Is it Umber Singh who loses everything and everyone because of his obsession or is it Kanwar, who has been conditioned to live out a gender she was not born into?

Or is it Meher, Umber’s wife who realises that she is no more than a reproductive machine, expected to bear a son and when she cannot, she is forced to become a living witness to her daughter’s tragedy. Nili is also a victim for no fault of her own because she comes from a different background, a different society, a different culture.

Qissa was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival where it bagged the prestigious Netpac Award for World/International Asian Film. It also won the Audience Choice Award at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam (IFFR) while Tilottama Shome won the Best Actress Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for her role in the film. The film has been produced by Heimatfilm, Germany, Augustus Films, The Netherlands, and National Film Development Corporation, India.

A deeper commentary

The predominantly patriarchal misuse and abuse of medical technology for sex determination before a child is born, or aborting the foetus once it is known to be female, is not uncommon. But the deconstruction of the sex one is born into and reconstruction of the same child as male is something extremely rare. Qissa is an example of this belief translated to practice.

This involves no change in the genetic sex of the child but has deeper sociological, cultural and psychological ramifications for the person who is forced to go through this process without even knowing that under different historical-sociological circumstances, she might have had a choice.

Singh says he has heard of several such horrific stories in the northern parts of India, and was inspired by one particular story about a father who forced his teenage daughter to jump into the well during the riots – a common but brutal practice in Punjab before and during the Partition. For many years after the tragedy, this father was plagued by repeated nightmares of his dead daughter asking him – “why”?

Anup Singh. Pic courtesy: NFDC

R.W. Connell, a pioneer in developing a social theory of gender relations (Gender and Power, 1987) focusses on gender as a large-scale social structure and not just a matter of personal identity. Her work is concentric towards an exploration of what she calls “hegemonic masculinity,” which is distanced from other masculinities, especially subordinated masculinities.

Hegemonic masculinity embodies the prevalent ‘honour’ and dominance associated with being a man and requires all other men to position themselves in relation to it. It ideologically legitimises the global subordination of women to men. So, we see in Qissa that even a strong and courageous woman like Meher is forced into silence and submission, not because she is scared of Umber but because she is concerned about the safety of all her daughters, including Kanwar.

The same logic applies to Nili in a slightly different way. She is forced to stay on in her marital home even when she wants to go back to her group. She would have been raped by her father-in-law but it is Kanwar, a woman, who saves her even when it means shooting down her own father. The relationship between Nili and Kanwar evolves into a warm sisterhood and companionship in the film, instead of predictably settling into a clichéd lesbian entanglement.

Even death does not liberate Umber Singh from his obsession for a male heir. The logic he presents is that after the Partition, there is no one left in his family to carry on the lineage. His warped ideology even legitimises incestual rape of one’s own daughter-in-law. This underscores the tragedy of the entire story – if keeping the lineage was the primary motive, then why was this little girl brought up as a boy when her father knew that she would never be able to sire a child?

But then again, did he even know? It does not seem so when one looks back at his life and observes how he taught himself to believe that Kanwar was his son, born a son and brought up as a son. True that Qissa is a Punjabi language film. But it carries a universal message that is very scary but also true.

It also reminds one of the Tagore classic Chitrangada inspired from a story from the Mahabharata. After long penances and prayers to Lord Shiva for a son, when the queen still delivers a girl-child, the king decides to bring her up like a boy. He trains her in archery, fencing, hunting and other art linked to warfare and dresses her like a boy.

In Tagore’s version of the epic tale, Chitrangada realises she is a woman only when she falls in love with Arjuna, who is impressed by her but mistakes her for a boy. With a boon from Madana, the god of love, Chitrangada becomes a beautiful, feminine woman for a year, which endears her to Arjuna. But soon Arjuna comes to hear of the brave warrior princess, who is the protector of the land and her people, and yearns to meet her. It is then that Chitrangada reveals her true self.

When Arjuna leaves Manipur, Chitrangada stays back to rule the kingdom after her father. The positive note in Chitrangada is that though she recognizes and restores her femininity, she sustains the strength and power that eventually helps her rule the kingdom of Manipur with an iron hand. But the fact remains that much like Kanwar in the 20th century Chitrangada, too, was initially denied the right to live out the sexual identity she was born with.

“The preoccupation with women’s sexuality formed part of the contract of war between the three communities….So powerful and general was the belief that safeguarding a woman’s honour is essential to upholding male and community honour that a whole new order of violence came into play, by men against their own kinswomen, and by women against their daughters and sisters and their own selves,” write Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin in Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition.

The question is – will today spell out a different story? “Can masculinity be manufactured” is the core question. Qissa seems to say that under the given time, space and paradigms where patriarchy reigns supreme – it can.