“Qissa”… A chilling tale about what it’s like to be in a limbo

Posted on February 25, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

The Partition saga Qissa (in Punjabi) is ostensibly about a woman who’s brought up as a man, but the film isn’t about gender identity at all. At least, not in the way we talk about it in these LGBTQ times. The director Anup Singh is after something looser, vaguer. His entire film seems to be an attempt to come to grips with limbo, that state of being where you’re neither in India nor in Pakistan, neither man nor woman, neither human nor ghost, neither gay nor straight, where a line on a map or a chromosome can suddenly change the way people perceive you, which, in turn, changes the way you see yourself. It may be no accident that the mirror – at times crusted with metaphorical grime, like the photograph in K Balachander’s Arangetram – is a recurrent image in the movie.

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Most Partition-era tales go after the sadness of it all. Few set out to chart the madness – not the generalised insanity of mobs, but the literal madness of the times encapsulated in (and espied through) the madness of an individual. The best – and best-known – example of the latter kind of Partition saga is probably Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, which was actually set in a lunatic asylum, and in the movies, we’ve had Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram!, whose deluded protagonist decided that the only way to get some sanity back into his life was to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) opts for an easier solution. He just decides to think that his last-born girl (Kanwar, played as an adult by Tillotama Shome) is a boy.

A different kind of filmmaker might have thought it important to get into Umber Singh’s head, to explain why. But sometimes there are no whys. It just is. It may have something to do with the line about “defeating destiny.” It may not. We get the scene where Umber’s wife Meher (Tisca Chopra) delivers a baby girl and asks him if he won’t see the child. He says he’s seen enough girls. That’s about as much explanation we get about Umber’s decision to treat Kanwar as his “son.” He wants to believe this so desperately, it’s so important to him, that even when this “boy” comes to him at night with blood-stained pyjamas, he just remarks that his son is growing up. The scene is horrible to watch. Later, when Kanwar has been married off to Neeli (Rasika Duggal, who looks like a young Urmila Matondkar), the in-laws take the new bride to the local jewellery store. Umber buys something for her and then says he’ll buy her the whole shop when she has a son. It’s surreal. Irrfan Khan is incredible. He doesn’t produce the simple effect of making you hate him for what he’s doing to Kanwar. Watching him, you feel the kind of morbid fascination when you run into the scene of a really gruesome accident. Your eyes are drawn to him even as you know you want to flee.

The story Anup Singh wants to say is so delicate, so textured, and so unusual – at some point, it simply slips into magical realism, as if it were the most natural thing (and the cinematography is equally magical) – that the wrong cast would have killed it, or worse, made us hoot with laughter. After all, look at the things that happen. There’s a fire that wipes out someone just as Kanwar goes to find them. There’s the girl raised as a boy. There’s this “boy” being taught how to wrestle. There’s this “boy” facing the prospect of a wedding night. The people who write those melodramatic soaps on TV couldn’t come up with more bizarre twists. And yet, with this cast, nothing sticks out. It all comes together beautifully.

Shome may just be the most convincing man-played-by-a-woman. She’s small of build, so she doesn’t have to face the kind of eye-rolling we did in, say, Mera Naam Joker, when Padmini pretended to be a man. Shome looks like an adolescent, which, too, is a kind of limbo – between childhood and adulthood. Irrfan Khan looms over her, and in her scenes with him, she really looks like a little boy. And when she dresses up in girl clothes, Shome looks like a cross-dresser – it’s hard to remember her as the shy, delicate, utterly feminine Alice from Monsoon Wedding. This is the very definition of a performance.

The word “chilling” kept popping into my head. That dressing-up scene is chilling. Neeli tells Kanwar that she/he’s free now and can do whatever she/he wants, but Kanwar probably had it easier when the choice didn’t exist. At least under Umber, she/he knew what she/he had to do – be a man, above all. But now, when Kanwar wears those girl clothes, she/he feels like scorpions are all over her/his body. When Neeli covers Kanwar’s head with a dupatta, she/he can barely bring himself to look at the reflection in the mirror. Imagine knowing you’re A, but your father wants you to be B, and now you’re free to be A, but you’ve grown comfortable being B. As I said, it’s chilling.

Qissa is filled with moments that are so muted, they pass before you realise you should be weeping. Like the scene where Kanwar, from a discreet distance, watches Meher bathing. Or the one where Kanwar tells Meher how much she/he longed to sit down and talk with her, something that the family’s daughters had taken for granted. Or the one where Neeli, on her wedding night, and after realising that she’s been married off to a woman, asks Meher what she should do now. Meher replies, “Live as my daughter.” You’d laugh if the mood weren’t so sombre. It’s almost as if Meher has been yearning to replace the daughter that Umber took away from her, and now she’s grabbing the chance when it presents itself in this utterly fantastical situation. In her own way, Meher appears to be as mad as her husband.


  • the photograph in K Balachander’s Arangetram = see here, at the 1:36:26 mark
  • when Padmini pretended to be a man = see here
  • Alice from Monsoon Wedding = see here

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