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“Qissa’s story transcends language”

Set against the backdrop of Partition, director Anup Singh’s Punjabi film, Qissa, has been selected to premiere at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s Singh sharing his craft secrets with Sagorika Dasgupta

What prompted you to become a filmmaker?

I belong to the Sikh community but I have never lived in Punjab. I spent my initial years in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and would often visit my relatives in Punjab with my mother during my vacations. So that was my introduction to Punjab. It was amazing to witness the change in the landscape, the people and the language. I was suddenly exposed to this large community of Sikhs. It was an astounding experience for me. During my adolescent years, I had to leave Africa due to political reasons. That’s when I realised that journeys are an integral and important part of an individual’s existence. Showcasing a journey is, again, the very core essence of a film.

What is the thought behind your film Qissa?

I have tried to portray the journey of my parents and especially my grandfather during the Partition in 1947. It was really sad and he had a certain understanding of his voyage. His experience of Partition was difficult and different from our understanding of it today. It was a bitter experience.

When I moved from Africa to India, I had a real conscious physical experience. We were travelling across the ocean and, at one point, I noticed the vast expanse of the sky above and the infinite sea below. I had a sense of being one with the larger cosmos and somehow I felt secure that I wouldn’t be homeless. It was not just a physical transportation but a figurative journey that I made. This was unlike my grandfather’s journey, which was bitter and cynical. That affirmation became true for this film.

When you travel from one place to another, it transforms you in many ways. You don’t carry a fixed identity. Your surroundings change, language changes, the people change and, as a result, your ideas change. This meeting of ideas and the history behind my travels is a very important part of the film and it was my attempt to capture them in it.

It took you nearly 12 years to make this film. Why did it take so long?

Finding producers was difficult. The film dealt with the concept of vanvaas which is inherent even in our Indian mythology. It was an attempt to make a film based on a concept that comes riddled with the usual nostalgia of the expected anger of Partition. Even to date, the thought of Partition resurrects these bitter emotions in our hearts. That was not easy. It was not easy to deal with the warped emotional buttons that politicians have often pushed to exploit the sentiments of people. So most producers were not happy with the subject.

Besides that, I wanted to make the film in Punjabi, which many producers suggested was a wrong move. But I did not want to comply with such pressures. Also, many producers suggested a certain type of casting which would make the film reach out to more people. But I knew what was important to me. I wanted to celebrate the difference between languages.

You had to really chase Irrfan for the lead role. Why did you insist on casting him in the lead?

There is a certain kind of acting today where we see a certain sentimentality. A quick tempo leads the audience into emotional zones. This kind of acting is also proving to be lucrative. But I wanted to go back to the acting prowess showcased by the likes of Balraj Sahni. If there is any actor who has that calm and wide way with truth it is Irrfan. As an actor, he allows you to be a part of his imagination. With him, what you get is an experience. He would simply come in contact with the camera and communicate with people and with their memory. His type of acting requires the language to say much more.

So you wrote the role with Irrfan in mind?

Absolutely. Towards the end of the writing process, I began to give casting a serious thought. That’s when I started looking around me and wondering who had the acting abilities similar to that of Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar. I found my answer in Irrfan. He has been able to portray so much more beyond the violence of the character. He will show you the hurt and pain and yet be a sad man who is very violent. You will empathise with him even though you disagree with him.

The film is in Punjabi and Irrfan is spot on when it comes to getting an accent right. Was that another reason to cast him?

I had no doubts about his capabilities as an actor but that was not the reason. I believe dislocations help a person grow. Dislocations help a language grow and reach further. Irrfan himself is from somewhere far away in Punjab and I knew that would help me get a new dimension.

He trained very hard with two guides to get the accent right so that it is a familiar way of speaking Punjabi. But sometimes language changes within a few yards. So the kind of Punjabi spoken in Jalandhar, which is on one side of Punjab, is very different from the Punjabi spoken in Rawalpindi. I liked the musicality that Irrfan brought in with his accent.

How did the rest of the cast fall in place?

Chance accident and good luck.

Good luck for you or the actors?

(Laughs) The film’s good luck. I was fortunate enough to get producers who hadn’t given me a brief to cast a star. And, like I said, it was good luck that brought the rest of the cast including Tisca (Chopra), Tilottama (Shome) and Rasika (Duggal) together. In fact, I was not even aware of their body of work in Hindi films when I cast them.

At what point did NFDC come in as producers?

They came in quite early. I had sent my script to the script committee at NFDC. They loved my script but the budget they suggested for the film was very tough to accept. So they helped me get in touch with international co-producers. Their credibility helped me.

How did the film get invited to the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF)?

Cameron Bailey of the Toronto Film Festival, watched the film and was so impressed that he wrote about it on his website. That’s how I got the invitation for its premiere at TIFF. Bailey has great regard for the film and I couldn’t think of a better way for Qissa to start its journey.

What kind of springboard do festivals like TIFF provide new filmmakers?

Festivals like TIFF celebrate all kinds of cinema. It is the hub of films from Hollywood, France, Germany, South Korea and China. So it is a gathering of filmmakers from across the globe too. I haven’t visited Canada before but I am told that people there are very passionate about Punjabi films. Your films at such festivals are able to create a larger dialogue with a larger world. We filmmakers can get a very different perspective which is much more than just that of the film’s.

Are you aware that a lot of festival films are now getting mainstream representation in India?

Yes, I am aware of that. Nothing can be more joyous than the mainstream cinema of a country growing, and when that success trickles down to other kinds of cinema. In fact, I am looking forward to a theatrical release of my film early next year.

Are you apprehensive about your film not reaching out to people because it is in Punjabi?

Let me be a little tongue-in-cheek. I am a Sikh, so I speak Punjabi. I was born and raised in Africa. I speak fluent Swahili. I then moved to Mumbai and am pretty fluent in Hindi and Marathi. Then I moved to the UK and now live in Geneva. I am a creature of all these languages. In India, mainstream film has been dominated by a particular language but behind all languages is human emotion. The kind of story Qissa has, transcends language. I know it will connect to a wide section of the audience worldwide.

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