I had first seen Qissa during Mumbai Film Festival (2013) and was extremely pleased with Anup Singh’s sad yet haunting tale. For me it was definitely one of the best Indian films seen that year and was looking forward to its theatrical release sometime in 2014. Thanks to its good performance in the International Film Festival circuit I was hoping that Qissa would turn out to be landmark film for Punjabi Cinema in particular. No I wasn’t expecting the film to be a monstrous hit like a Punjab 1984 or Chaar Saahibzaade, but thanks to the star cast and the theme I felt that it could at least reach out to its target audience in a far better way than a totally art house film like Anhey Ghore Da Daan. Unfortunately despite the best efforts of Anup Singh and his team, this Indo-German film continued to wait for its theatrical release in India.
I was lucky enough to watch the film once again a few months ago when it looked like the release was more or less around the corner. Despite being a repeat watch Qissa continued to enthral me, making me once again reiterate that this is indeed one of the better Indian films of recent times. While the release did not happen then as intended it’s good to note that the long wait is finally over. Qissa is a film which is set across either sides of the India-Pakistan border in Punjab during and after the partition. The tale starts with Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) and his family getting displaced from their village in Pakistan. His family consists of his wife Mehr (Tisca Chopra) and their three daughters. Umber is a man with a lot of self-belief and despite having left everything behind, he works hard and soon becomes a prosperous businessman, building a big house for him and his family, a house that becomes a character of its own in the tale. In the meanwhile Mehr gives birth to their fourth child, even before reality of this being another daughter sinks in, Umber declares proudly that this is a son and names the ‘son’ as Kanwar.
Umber is shown to be a good husband to Mehr and a loving father to his daughters, but his need for a son and hence his special affection for Kanwar is shown as a symbol of a custom and practice which is still prevalent across the country. Kanwar as a child (Danish Akhtar) is made to feel that he is a boy and is brought up by Umber as one. Naturally Kanwar tends to be closer to Umber more than his mother and sisters. A turn of events sees Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) getting married off to Neeli (Rasika Dugal), a gypsy girl. What follows is an entire chain of happenings which affects each and every one in the family, taking them all by surprise. Saying anything more about the plot would only spoil the experience for those who are yet to watch the film and hence I would rightfully refrain from doing so. But if you’ve seen the trailer and heard a bit about the film I can tell you that Qissa is a film that makes great use of the element of magic realism.
The screenplay by Anup Singh and Madhuja Mukherjee is quite complex as it goes about trying to do justice to a tale that throws up various topics/themes like partition & the associated issues it brings up, patriarchal system, gender identity/crisis, homosexuality, revenge, state of belonging, love and so much more. But credit to the writers for managing to not just being successful in their endeavour but also for keeping the audience engaged all the way, by revealing the elements slowly, in tantalising fashion. The dialogues by Anup Singh and Madan Gopal Singh add strength to the tale, blending well with the characters and the milieu. For a film that goes on to haunt you long after you’ve watched it the music by Manish J.Tipu and Beatrice Thiriet is a good fit indeed. Costumes by Divya Gambhir and Nidhi Gambhir and production design by Tim Pannen are first rate, literally taking us back in time to the late 1940’s.
The film has lots of moments that are powerful, those that you will remember for a long time. Like when a young Kanwar goes not to his mother but instead to his father when ‘he bleeds’. Or when Kanwar later asks Mehr as to why she did not give him as much attention in the way she gave her three daughters. The scenes that feature Kanwar and Neeli are fantastic, their relationship might shift in various capacities, but both of them liven up the scenes and heighten the impact. As the film moves from realism to magic realism (with a thin line bridging the two) you might appear confused or may not appreciate the shift in tone. Nevertheless I would still say that the film works in the right fashion. Personally I found the angle of magic realism to be working positively, something that made the film a lot more special eventually. Despite being a period tale I would say that the film is still contemporary for the kind of themes it explores, making it bold and quite relevant today.
In terms of performances Qissa is a film which would make any director overjoyed. The casting of the film is spot on and each and every one delivers a performance with conviction making the film a treat to watch. Faezeh Jalali as Kanwar’s elder sister is lively and quite impressive, Danish Akhtar as young Kanwar is a natural and Irrfan and Tisca share good chemistry between themselves. Despite the spotlight not being on her, Tisca as Mehr manages to leave a good impact and is very good as the wife of Umber who is unable to voice herself for a long time, but eventually opens up to Kanwar and Neeli. Calling Irrfan a good actor would be an understatement and as Umber Singh he once again shows us why he is so talented. Never once in the entire tale does he go overboard (despite there being a few moments where he could have done so) and that speaks volumes of his calibre. Tillotama Shome looks a little stiff initially as Kanwar, the boy who takes after his father but post the wedding with Neeli she transforms completely to give a wonderful performance. Rasika Dugal as Neeli is someone who impressed me the most though. Absolutely a natural, she brings in various shades to her character with remarkable ease, making her act a standout.
Ultimately Qissa is a tale which is a cinematic triumph in every sense. Many would question if the 12 year journey for Anup Singh was really worth it, but if the output throws up a film like Qissa then I would certainly say it was indeed worth it. Go watch Qissa, a film which has its heart in the right place. If you are a lover of serious cinema, then there is no excuse for not watching it.
P.S-Qissa is playing with English sub-titles in select screens in Mumbai, Delhi/NCR, Chandigarh, Chennai and Kolkata. It is also available on VOD here.