Film review: Qissa London Indian Film Festival

Folk, fact or fiction? Storytelling. Not as you know it.

Posted: 13.07.14

Part fairytale, part fantasy, part folklore; Qissa weaves together historical ties, family bonds, issues of identity, belonging and the supernatural, to create a film that takes you on a journey that's unlike any cinematic adventure you've embarked on before.

Set in the Punjab and beginning at the start of Independence in 1947, the film is a metaphor for many of the experiences that Indians and Pakistani's faced during this bleak period, but rather than presenting the situation from a political perspective, it focuses on the tale of one family and the deep, dark secret that haunts them.

The moment she is born Kanwar's father declares her to be a boy, bringing her up as his son. With such a lie there comes burden and over the years we see Kanwar develop and grow, trying to come to terms with his/her alternate gender while the father figure (played by Irrfan Khan) deals with the weight of his actions.

From the moment Qissa begins, through to its conclusion, every part of your senses are engaged. Visually the production is stunning. The landscape of the Punjab is depicted as beautiful yet barren. The washed out colourisation adds an ethereal feel, giving the film its fairytale quality. The haunting soundtrack is the soul of the movie, melodic yet mystical, it alludes to the unearthly feelings that engulf each character. Emotionally this films entwines you physically and mentally - there's an urgency to reach out onto the screen and put your arms around Kanwar, knowing there is no one she can turn to, and morally it questions your beliefs about what is acceptable when it comes to upholding family values.

To pick out an actor and praise them for their performance would make the others seem insignificant when in truth, every member of this ensemble cast is worthy of a mention. It's not as easy as saying 'the best performance of Irrfan's career' or 'Tillotama Shome masterfully plays a boy and a girl': these are actors who are defining the boundaries of acting itself, presenting to what is largely a conservative audience in Indian, new possibilities.

The casting of Irrfan Khan, a Muslim actor who does not speak Punjabi into such a robust Sikh character while Tillotama who plays Kanwar is herself Bengali, again taking on a language that was unfamiliar to her, gives this film an additional layer of intelligence. The language used in the film alters in dialect to reflect different time periods, which itself brings another dimension to contemporary Punjabi filmmaking.

One of the highlights of Qissa is the tender depiction of friendship and love between Kanwar and Neeli, the girl that he marries. The portrayal of the warmth, respect and desires the two women have for each other is both honest and sensitive.

The folklore element of the movie is at times hard to spot because it feels so natural. Even though the subheading to the film is 'The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost', when you are watching it you don't always recognise the spectres and shadows that accompany each character. Dealing with the supernatural may seem far-fetched, yet because it's done so in context, at no point do you question the authenticity; it is engrained in the script.

12 years in the making, Anup Singh's courageous production Qissa is part funded by Indian, German, French and Dutch investors and as a result it contains the essential ingredients that will make this a crossover success for Western and non-Western audiences. Pushing the boundaries of Indian and Pujabi pictures, it's an example of cinema that has the power to define modern filmmaking.

Momtaz Begum-Hossain

Qissa is expected to release in Indian in September 2014. 

LIFF screenings: Sat 12th July 8:10 BFI
Sun 13th JUly 18:00, Cineworld, Cineworld Haymarket

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