Anup Singh, director of the award-winning film Qissa,  talks about his harrowing journey into homelessness and how he found a home in cinemas.

What have you worked on prior to Qissa? How did your filmmaking journey begin?

I’ve done a film called The Name of a River (Ekti Nadir Naam), a film in Bengali. The film is homage to the cinema of the great filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. It explores the unrequited passion for a lost homeland, filmmaking and heartbreak and redemption of a refugee in modern India. The Name of a River was awarded the Aravindan Award, India, for the best debut filmmaker. It was also awarded the Silver Dhow for best feature film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.

As to my filmmaking journey, I think it has a lot to do with my family being forced to leave Tanzania, East Africa, where I was born and where my father grew up from the age of three. This was at the time of Idi Amin in Uganda. That was my first harrowing journey into homelessness, what has now become a life-long journey of a refugee. However, what gave me some hope then and continues to nourish me even today is what I experienced after a few nights on the vast ocean between Africa and India. One night a large screen was raised on the deck of the ship and a film flared bright between the starry sky above and the boundless sea below. And I knew at that moment that as long as I could invoke this experience of cinema, where it pulsed as a part of the larger cosmos, I would never be homeless. Cinema has been my home in all my journeys since then.

Where did you grow up and what were your early influences?

I was born and brought up in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. It’s difficult to adumbrate my early influences because they are flickering memories of the infinite, blue like lapis-lazuli sky, white clouds heavy, hanging so low that you felt you could reach out and pluck a foaming piece off them and sculpted into animal and other fantastic shapes. The palpability of the nature in Africa has brought into my films an intense celebration of light and dark, earth and sky and water and fire. As you will see in Qissa, too, the real theme of my films is whether the characters affirm themselves as part of nature or do they seek to separate themselves from it and seek to exploit and control it.

Did you pursue any other career before landing into films? 

I started writing very early. I think I was 11 when I wrote my first story. My desire to write better and learn more about writing took me into journalism initially. At the age of 16-17 I was, in fact, the main critic for The Free Press of India, which used to be published from Mumbai. But that left me dissatisfied. I then started writing plays, slowly gathered actors and we started a theatre group. From there, it seemed but the next step to start writing film scripts!

anup on any set

Describe your days studying direction at FTII. Do you think formal education in filmmaking is a definite plus? How did it help you in your filmmaking journey?

The Film & TV Institute of India, in Pune, is for me essentially a forest, which has a few buildings scattered within it. When I entered and lived in it for three years, I felt I was back in the Africa of my childhood. There were trees all around me, a hill crouching at the border of the institute and open sky above.

What made all this nature, the classes, studios and cinema within FTII almost sacred to me is that some of the most revered filmmakers of India had studied there, grown there, thought about their first films there. So anywhere you stepped within FTII carried a story about one filmmaker or another. You could not help but become a part of that history and initiate a ceaseless dialogue with all the filmmakers who had been there before me and all the other masters of world cinema we watched & studied. This dialogue with the history of cinema, all kinds of cinema, from various corners of the world, was very important to me.

To me, the formal education in filmmaking was momentous to my thinking. What it really taught me is this: more than the mastery of skill or technique, which is undoubtedly important, cinema demands an impassioned and ceaseless questioning of our existence on this earth, the vital relationship we share with our fellow human-beings and, not the least, a never-ending quest to celebrate uncertainty. Uncertainty not only about our beliefs, but also our ideals, including our deepest convictions about our own creation.

I really believe that theory & practice go together. One without the other is like a body without a soul. All these lessons that I learned at FTII make me the filmmaker I am today. I believe it is my time at FTII that has made my cinema a cinema of questions, a cinema that seeks to challenge all kinds of borders, a cinema that seeks to keep itself open to the multiple possibilities of the human spirit and our world.

Your debut film The Name of a River was in Bengali and this one is in Punjabi. Do you feel comfortable working in different languages? Do you speak and understand both the languages?

I understand Bengali quite well. Unfortunately, I’m not so fluent in it as I was while making my first film in Bengal. Punjabi, of course, is my mother tongue. There is a reason why I insist on working in different languages. I believe a film is a rhythm of nuances, light and shadow, tones and sonorities. Every language has its texture, lilt and dance. I choose every detail in a film because each choice is its own sensuous play as well as contributes to the resonance of the whole film. The language I choose to make the film in is as important and integral to the film as the kind of lighting or movement or composition that I choose for the film.

– Priyanka Jain