[Following is a guest post by Kavita Bhanot. She is a london based writer. Her short stories and non-fiction have been published widely in anthologies, magazines and journals, two of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and she is the editor of the short story collection Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press, 2011.) ]
There has, of late, been a revival of Punjabi cinema directed towards and watched by Punjabi audiences. A recent addition to Punjabi language cinema, albeit less ‘commercial’ and more ‘artistic’ is the Punjabi language film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals and was screened last week at the London Indian Film Festival.
The film is about the violent consequences of son obsession in a Sikh refugee family in post-partition East Punjab.Visually striking, Qissa stands out for its cinematography; the framing, the use of shadows and light, the unusual angles. It was often absorbing, most of all in the scenes between actresses Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, playing the couple Kanwar Singh and Neeli who find themselves in a predicament after marriage when they both discover that Kawar is actually a woman. Their interactions quiver with layered tension and chemistry.
Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t quite come together, it seems to lack internal coherence. I found myself watching it with a sense of unease, it didn’t carry me through, and when, in the post film discussion, the director spoke about the qissa tradition, connecting his film to this ‘genre,’ my discomfort increased.
Encompassed in the title, in the main heading (Qissa) and the subheading (The Tale of the Lonely Ghost), are two very different conceptions of storytelling, the film seems to hover between both of these, but falls ultimately, in the framework of the latter.
The Qissa is a storytelling tradition that is woven into the lives, culture of Punjabis. Qissas have been retold, reinterpreted in each era, often through music – the Sufi versions of these stories that are most well-known. Rooted in time and place – it is through particularity, detail, a connection with everyday life that qissas speak to the people of the region. Waris Shah weaves into Heer, perhaps the most popular qissa, painstaking, almost sociological detail about the customs, practices, beliefs, social, economic and political structures of the time. Qissas often portray, through love stories, the defiance and rebellion of ordinary people, exploring the radical potential of love and sexuality, as lovers and their accomplices defy the conventions, religion, ‘morality’ of an oppressive society. Qissas, in this way, critique social, political institutions, challenging power at all levels. While the lovers in Sufi qissas simultaneously symbolise the relationship between devotee and pir or guru, it is through the details, the emotion and earthiness of lived life that they become metaphors, that they become universal. Sufis understood that this was the way to connect with people.
Watching Anup Singh’s Qissa, I struggled to see its connection to this tradition. Overtly, the film can be seen to critique patriarchy. It can also be seen to reach towards romantic love that goes beyond gender and society’s heterosexual and patriarchal norms. On interrogation however, the film is unable to transcend either of these structures, it remains embedded in them.
In his desperation for a son, Umber Singh, the patriarchal figure at the centre of Qissa, father of three daughters, brings up his fourth daughter as a son. It’s an interesting premise and, leaving aside the fact that neither the decision to pretend, at Kanwar’s birth, that she is a boy, nor the continued charade, are quite convincing within the film, the ensuing narrative touches on the cruelty and violence inherent in son preference and associated ideas of the male line, inheritance, roots. We are also led to reflect on the learned performativeness of male chauvinism, as we see Umber Singh’s daughter-son Kanwar go on to express desire in violent, aggressive ways.
There was further radical potential for the film to explore gender, explore the ways in which androgyny and desire can challenge the rigidity of patriarchy. By the end of the film however, we are left only with a sense of helplessness in the face of Patriarchy (with a capital P). A Patriarchy that is inflexible, unchanging, all-consuming and eternal. A fixed, timeless Patriarchy.
For while the opening scenes locate the film during Partition, there is virtually nothing in the film that roots it in this period, there is little continuity in the post-partition narrative. Towards the end of the film a connection is implied between the obsession with having a son and the loss of land and roots brought about by Partition (Umber Singh says to Kanwar, “by giving you to me, your mother has rooted me to the earth again”), but this tying up of the narrative feels contrived and unconvincing. It is only Patriarchy that the film zooms in on, a Patriarchy that is not intersectional, played out in relation to other structures such as class and caste. Beyond perhaps, the implicit assumption that Neeli will put up with the marriage to Kanwar because she is poor/lower-caste, a ‘gypsy’ girl – there is no direct reference to caste or class in the film.
The character of Umber Singh emerges, in the end, as a sinister stereotype of a South Asian Patriarch. One that we have seen again and again in film. In East is East, for example. Or the film that came to my mind as I watched Qissa, the Pakistani film Bol. There are many similarities between the films. The slightly lovable but ultimately evil father figure, the many daughters, the obsession with having a son, (in Bol the only son is transgender, in Qissa, the ‘son’ is actually a girl), the patriarch’s violence, and the need eventually, to kill him off. In Bol, this father is shown to be religious (religion, patriarchy and lower classness are often inseparable in the elite liberal imagination, as oppressors of women and homosexuals). His death allows the family to move forward into the ‘modern’ age. Overnight, they become upper middle class, ‘normal’, as religious, lower class patriarchy is replaced by secular, liberal middle class consumerism. In Qissa however, Patriarchy can’t be killed off.
Umber Singh, who represents Patriarchy, frames and dominates the story – the film starts and ends with him; in the last scene we see him as an old man, telling us his story. He/Patriarchy will continue to live, the film suggests, into eternity. The female characters have little agency in the face of this force – they are helpless and hopeless, and ultimately kill themselves, go mad, or allow themselves be swallowed, absorbed by the patriarch.
One of the hallmarks of qissas are the fiery, defiant female protagonists. We see, in the character of Neeli, the girl that Kanwar is married to, a glimpse of such fire and defiance. She is angry when she discovers that Kanwar is impotent, and then, that she is actually a woman. But Kanwar, whether man or woman, is still the person that Neeli desires. There was radical potential here, to challenge patriarchy and heteronormativity. Umber Singh and his wife ask Neeli to live under their roof as another daughter, Umber Singh does not perhaps imagine that Neeli and Kanwar will have a sexual or romantic relationship – he tries to rape his daughter-in-law, to impregnate her, so the family has an heir. But, while the chemistry between the women is electrifying, both before and after they find out that Kanwar is female – a sense of desire evident on both sides, neither seems to question society’s heterosexual norms, there is an acceptance that their love must now become sisterly, they won’t cross that line. When they run away, there is a possibility of creating something new. The darkness of the scenes that follow however, the lighting, the sense of claustrophobia, reflect a helpless grappling with the situation they have been placed in. Ultimately they, along with all the female characters, are prisoners of Patriarchy.
Meanwhile, other than the two women at the centre, all the female characters, the sisters, the mother, are undeveloped as characters; they are helpless, shadowy, blurring into the background. The male patriarch is the only figure who has agency, he dictates the story. The director, by remaining fixated on the patriarchal figure and his power, betrays his own assumptions and location. It is of course impossible, for men and women, to escape the pervasiveness of patriarchy, but a film that is tying itself to current conversations about women’s rights in the South Asian context, needs to interrogate its representations more deeply.
Similarly, a film that is tying itself to a certain language (Punjabi) and tradition (Punjabi qissa), needs to engage with both in a deeper way. The general, abstract patriarchy in the film is symptomatic of the abstraction that is embedded in the very aesthetic, the ideology of the film. Unlike the rooted qissas, Qissa the film hovers, as the director said in the post-film conversation, a little above reality. Painted with broad brush strokes, there is little detail and everydayness in the film, it is not rooted in time and place. It feels as if it could be set at any time; two hundred years earlier or in the present. The historical post-partition context becomes abstract rather than specific (the loose connection to Partition seems to be more about giving the film a bigger canvas, epic proportions.) The Punjabi language is stilted, generic, functional – not alive, specific to a time and place, playful, immersed in lived life. Beyond Umber Singh’s obsession with his daughter-son Kanwar, and the desire, tension and affection between Kanwar and the girl she marries, there are no real relationships in the film – between parents and children, between siblings, between husband and wife, between the family and wider community and/or authority. The family seems to exist in floating isolation, rather than as part of a wider family and community in their lived life. It can be argued that this is because Partition has uprooted the family, but we are shown their lives fifteen, twenty later, amongst people they have spent decades living with, there would be some connection with them, even if antagonistic.
Perhaps the film is a qissa in the translated sense, for qissa tends to be translated or understood as a legend, myth, folk-story, fairy-tale, fable, parable, allegory even – all of which hover, as the film does, above the details of lived life. Or it is simply an ‘art film’. There is often an assumption that ‘art’ inhabits a space that is separate from life, that abstraction allows ‘art’ to access and reveal deeper truths, to go deeper, to see life from a distance. Singh said something along these lines in the post-film discussion. Alongside this is the assumption that ‘art’, existing at a slight remove from life is all the more pure, universal, eternal. It is cosmopolitan, ‘homeless,’ global writers and artists, Salman Rushdie being an example, who are best able to create such art; being outsiders, occupying a third space, allows them to see better, to understand more. However, such abstraction, universality, neutrality, ‘hovering above’ is never possible. You are always located somewhere, even the ‘abstractions,’ (a luxury for those with power) are revealing of a particular perspective and ideology. Such assertions are often used by those with power, to clear a space for their art, to give authority to their voices. A writer such as Rushdie might refer to ‘supernatural’ beliefs in Eastern cultures to give credibility to his ‘magic-realist’ writing. Yet his work is not seeped in the world views, traditions, culture, religious practices that he refers to, neither is he writing for those who are seeped in them. The ‘magic-realism’ in his work doesn’t come from within. Such work can become a form of appropriation directed at the west.
We see something similar in Qissa, and how it is presented. While the director spoke of the ‘supernatural’, of non-linear storytelling as being part of the Indian or Punjabi tradition, the film, in its narrative, aesthetic, representation, does not seem to emerge from such traditions, it is embedded in western realism. This is why it seems odd when the film suddenly becomes ‘super-natural’ towards the end, there is no sense of inevitability that strong narratives tends to have. The form that this ‘supernatural’ turn takes is also more akin to the ghost story of the title than anything rooted in a Punjabi world-view.
‘Abstraction’ can also be borne of the intention to make a work accessible and ‘universal’ – so those from certain backgrounds can appreciate and understand it. As we have seen with the international success that Qissa has hadso far on the festivals circuit, the film has been able to reach audiences that few Punjabi films do.
[Originally written for Frank Brazil.]