Anup Singh was a teenager when his family fled Tanzania for Bombay in 1971. Idi Amin’s rule in neighbouring Uganda had made it difficult for Indians to stay on in Tanzania as well. What the filmmaker remembers most about that voyage are scenes from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. “I was born in Dar es Salaam, as was my father. It was home. On that sad voyage to Mumbai, I remember a white screen on the deck playing a movie — I would like to believe it was Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. The boundless starlit African sky was above me and the great ocean below. I thought to myself, if I could have this as my home — the whole universe and cinema in the middle — I can never be homeless again,” says Singh. His latest film, The Song of Scorpions, was recently screened at the MAMI and the Locarno film festivals. An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, Singh, 56, teaches at a film school in Geneva. His earlier film, Qissa (2015), brought to life the story of a tortured ghost. Set during Partition, it dealt with issues of sexuality, gender and violence — all recurring concerns in his work. In this interview, he talks about being marred by the December 2012 gang rape, finding his character in Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani, and his new film.
In The Song of Scorpions, we meet Nooran, who has the power to save a person stung by a scorpion from certain death by her voice alone. Irrfan, a camel trader, plays her love interest. What was your frame of reference for Nooran and her world?
There were many. As a child in Africa, I had heard many legends narrated by fisherfolk I grew up with. One was about a community, where the mother of a newborn creates a song for the child. And when the child grows up, the whole village recognises her by that song. When the child got into mischief, they would not punish the child. The village would gather around her and sing her song. The child would then understand what it is to be a part of a community, to be loved by everyone. The song served as a beacon and as a moral compass. The other reference was, of course, this community in Rajasthan, which believed that if a particular scorpion stings you, you die within 24 hours. Only a sage-musician, who can sing a counter melody to the poison in the blood, can save you.
The theme of sexual violence is in sharp contrast to the otherwise idyllic desert landscape of the film.
All of us in India, who woke up on the morning of December 16, 2012, and came to know about that rape, were poisoned and marked for life. I carried that sense of dread and horror with me for a long time. It was only when I was finishing Qissa, that this dread erupted in the subconscious. I dreamt the whole sequence of a film and started writing feverishly the next morning. The violence that I saw in the dream and which we see in The Song of Scorpions mirrors the world we are living in. In Qissa, I spoke about separation and notions of gender. Here, I wanted to see if there could be healing. I wanted to break the cycle of violence leading to more violence. I wanted the woman to not fall into the trap of thinking like a man.
In the film, the desert is an important character, a silent witness to the events that unfold.
Not just India, the whole world has a special relationship with the desert. Almost all the major religions, our saints, our prophets, have originated from the desert. Our legendary love stories too. It’s strange what it teaches us. We can go to this space of barren living, and if we search hard enough, we can return with the oasis within us.
Why did you cast an Iranian actor, Golshifteh Farahani, in the role of Nooran, a character that is Indian?
Both Irrfan and I had met her at a film festival where she watched Qissa. We spent two days with her talking about cinema, acting, etc. She spoke about herself and her life in exile. She is not allowed to return to Iran, as she was thrown out for being the artist that she is. She spoke about her grief — of being away from home, not being able to see her family. There was a lot of rage that she carried. But she wasn’t bitter. She shared how the exile had opened new possibilities within herself. She found different Golshiftehs inside her. This allowed her to find herself in every stranger that she encountered. I thought she was speaking as Nooran, who is also exiled from her body, home and her village. After the end of those two days, I knew I had found my Nooran.
Waheeda Rehman plays Nooran’s grandmother and her teacher. Was it easy to sign her for the film?
It was plain luck. Waheedaji had seen Qissa. When I went to her, she said that she had not done a film in eight years and had said no to every offer. But when I narrated the character — of a woman living deep in the desert, blessed with a voice that could make flowers bloom in the desert — she agreed. She even sang in the film, a first in her career spanning five decades.
To say that your subjects and characters — be it in Ekti Nadir Naam, Qissa and now The Song…— are unconventional would be an understatement. Is that how you describe the cinema you make?
I make films that move me. And the thing about good cinema is that it will never give up all its secrets at one go. In 10 years, it will speak to you again in a different way altogether. A good film teaches us how to live cohesively and respect different worlds. It helps us celebrate what is not stereotypical, not just on the screen, but also in our lives. It can help us live with respect and dignity.