Qissa, the title of director Anup Singh’s second feature, is Arabic for folk tale. Its subhead, The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is essential to understand this haunting story. From the start, the film has an eerie, unsettling grip on you.
It is mesmerising to look at (camerawork by Sebastian Edschmid). The music blends an epic Western background score by Béatrice Thiriet with the lilt of typically Punjabi songs (Manish J Tipu) and lyrics (Madan Gopal Singh).
It’s 1947, the time of the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan. Umber Singh, Indian and a Sikh, is bitter about fleeing from ethnic cleansing in his village. Displaced and disturbed, Umber fights back by building a new home for his family. His wife whom he loves deeply bears him three daughters. Now the feudal need for a son surfaces in Umber. He claims the fourth child is a boy and raises him as one when it is a girl. When the ‘son’ marries the spirited gypsy Neeli, the family confronts the truth of their identities and destiny.
Irrfan Khan plays the doomed Umber Singh with a subdued dignity. The three likeable women in the film are strong in contrasting ways. But they must submit in a world where men and traditions rule.
Qissa made a deep impression at its world premiere in Toronto. The cast -- Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Duggal and Irrfan Khan, all present in Toronto, were seeing the film for the first time. This is an uncompromising work with the force of myth and tragedy, however mystifying at times.
Identity and gender are running themes in many films. Venezuela’s Bad Hair is a tale of a single mother at the end of her tether with managing to care for her baby and a curly-haired nine-year old son. Her own driving need is to get back her job as a security guard. When it comes to her son, she cannot abide his ways of dressing, his desire to be a long-haired singer and the possibility that he could be gay. She uses the most cruel means to force the vulnerable and dependent child to become like others -- conventional and socially acceptable.