Director Anup Singh, whose film Qissa releases this 20th talks about having multiple producers on the film, making a Punjabi language film and how Irrfan’s character is inspired from his grandfather.

Qissa1How did the idea of Qissa emerge? Being born in Tanzania and living in Switzerland, what drew you towards writing a story based on partition and displacement in Punjab?

The 1947 partition of India made my grandfather a refugee. Qissa is an enemy’s tribute and homage that I offer to my grandfather. It is an attempt to put his ghost to rest and, with him, the vengeful state of mind that has traumatized us as a nation since the partition. From when I was a child his refugee tales have scorched my imagination. My grandfather carried a burning bitterness about his loss of home. And this sense of loss tore him apart and often he could not help but turn on his own family with a despairing, remorseless violence. Somehow, any which way, he needed to avenge his loss. And that is where the character of Umber (played by Irrfan Khan) in Qissa comes from.

And, then, one has to simply pick up a daily newspaper and you see a world-wide cycle of violence initiated by the break up of nations, the loss of homeland. The idea of nation and identity – of homeland – is without doubt one of the most tormenting questions of our time.

This is where Qissa comes from, from history, from tales and memories and from a need on my part to question our time of violence and attempt to seek a path, not of forgiveness perhaps, but empathy. This is a lesson I learnt from the women of my family and they are the affirmative and celebratory figures of Qissa.

What attracted you the most about Irrfan and how was the experience working with him? Please talk about this one with incidents in detail.

Umber Singh, the character that Irrfan plays, is to a large extent inspired by my grandfather. A man poisoned by his sense of loss, determined to avenge himself on history and his fate. And why Irrfan? Because, to me, he’s one of the rare actors.

I chose Irrfan for the shadows in his eyes, the tender rhythms with which he engages with the world and the gentleness at the heart of his ferocious masculinity. Irrfan is one of the few actors I know who does not build his performance by simply mimicking familiar mannerisms of the community his character might belong to.

How long did it take you to write the script? What kind of research went into it?

The writing of the script took about three years. I wrote the first draft and then felt the need to bounce various ideas and reflections with someone who could bring a greater detachment to the story than I could as this was the tale of my family. I finally requested Madhuja Mukherjee to join me as a co-writer. She’s a tremendous force that burns somewhere between instinct and profound theorizations. She can bring an acutely emotional regard to things and, at other times, she can be judicious and when need arises razor-sharp. It was a joy working with her.

As for the research, well, because of my grandfather, I grew up surrounded by refugees. My childhood was full of their stories. What was most intriguing to me about their tales, as about the tales of my grandfather, was that at one point or another they would slip into fable, imaginary projections about what might have happened to their lost daughters, wives, mothers, sons, brothers, husbands during the partition. In their telling, what actually happened merged with what might have and what they sometimes simply dreamed. One narrative that still haunts me is of a daughter who jumped into a well when the village was attacked. The father spoke to me about how he dreams of his daughter’s ghost even now in that well, face turned eternally to the sky above, waiting for her father to come get her.

What is the look and feel of the film?

Light and dark are, of course, the elemental building blocks of cinema. And, again, given my theme of partition, I wanted light and dark in this film not to be antagonistic to each other.

I didn’t want the light to separate the characters from the dark background, as happens in most popular cinema or TV. In this film, I wanted the human figures and nature to have an equal power. I wanted a flux between them, one appearing out of the other – the character appearing out of the dark into light, the landscape unfolding all around the character. As I mentioned earlier, in the East, the traditions of painting or performance are more often about the pulse and changeability of rhythms from the landscape.

It is with these thoughts and experience of our location that the DOP, Sebastian Edschmid, and I started working on the cinematography of Qissa. We saw that in the burning, bright light of the Punjab, in North India, where Qissa is shot, people allow the light very carefully into their houses so that they can control the dust and heat. The light, then, dims as it spreads deeper into the house. The characters emerge from the shadows, take a solidity of presence and then become shadows again. The light caresses, wavers and pulses gently on the people and objects in the room. You can see them, but you can’t fully grasp them.

I believe this creates a deep desire in the audience to go further into the space, to probe deeper into the characters. Suddenly the audience is no longer simply watching, but begins to travel with their senses and imagination further than what is seen.

And the flux of light and dark in the film makes them realize again and again that, just like themselves, no thing or human can be fully seen, known, or completely defined.

Which locations did you shoot at and how many days schedule was it?

We shot in a village not very far from the Wagah border. Then in Atari and Chandigarh and a little bit around Himachal Pradesh. We shot the film in 45 days.

I wrote about Qissa first when it cracked a co production deal at NFDC Bazaar in Goa. The film has truly gone global, whether it is with its funding or its premiere at Toronto.


How did you go about funding the film? What funds did you receive?

Raising money for Qissa was a nerve-wracking process. I spent about five years trying to raise money in India. Most people who read the script thought I was mad as a hatter to want to make such a film! Many others liked the script, but wanted me to make it in Hindi with their choice of actors.

NFDC was the only production house in India that supported the project, but they could only contribute part of the budget.

Fortunately, just as I was losing hope, another project of mine, won a prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and then another prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. That allowed me to meet with a range of international producers and one of them was Bettina Brokemper of Heimatfilm, Germany. She agreed to listen to me narrate Qissa over a few cups of coffee in Cannes with her partner Johannes Rexin and immediately after my narration, she stunned me by saying that, “yes, we are going to do the film!”.

After that it still took about 5 years of Johannes’ determination and cajoling to gather other European partners for the film. We needed all these producers as each one of them could only bring a small amount to the film.

The film is co-produced by Germany’s Heimatfilm with Dutch production house Augustus Film, France’s Cine-Sud and India’s National Film Development Corp (NFDC), supported by ZDF Kleines Fernsehspiel, Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, FFA, MBB, DFFF, Eurimages, NFF Netherlands Film Fond, and Fonds Sud Cinéma.

What are the advantages and challenges of having multiple producers on a film?

As you can imagine, working with an international crew, each crew member not only with his/her own cultural preconceptions, but also his/her own approach to film-making, brought not only huge cultural misunderstandings to the fore, but also heated debates about film-making.

The challenges were at all levels and, often, heart-breaking. But not impossible. From large questions of casting, to the fine, aesthetic choices about the rhythms of the film’s dramatic movement, I had to fiercely battle for the spirit of the film and not allow differences in cultural perception to distort it. On any large co-production of this kind there are bound to be cultural gaps and trying to find a way to retain the spirit of the film took some time.