Case for lost Identities

Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost that premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival captures the stories of loss and displacement during Partition

Written by Debesh Banerjee | Published: September 4, 2013 5:11:27 am

Geneva-based filmmaker Anup Singh did not have to look far before writing the screenplay for his latest feature film,Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost. Brought up in different continents and hearing stories from relatives on displacement,Singh had ample baggage about the concept of home. “My grandfather lived in Rawalpindi,Punjab before Partition. He was forced to flee,leaving behind property and family. He always harboured resentment about that event,” says Singh,whose film Qissa…,makes its world premiere in the “Contemporary World Cinema” section of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8.

The 109-minute film is set in the villages near the Punjab border against a post-Partition backdrop. The story revolves around a Sikh man who is uprooted from his home and tries to set up his life afresh by starting a family in India. “My grandfather needed to avenge his loss but didn’t live long enough. His experience and the sense of hoplessness mirrors in the film’s protagonist,” says the 52-year-old filmmaker. His earlier film,Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River) 2002,based on the life of Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak,also touched upon the issue of displacement and refugees. “After all,we are all refugees as we are constantly searching for our origins. My films are an attempt to reaffirm that we are refugees on some level,” he says.

In many ways,Qissa… been a personal journey for Singh,who was born in Dar-es-Salaam,Tanzania,and spent his childhood between Africa and Mumbai where he moved with his parents as a boy. But that relocation was short-lived as he was forced to leave India,with his parents,since his father did not possess a valid Indian passport. “Leaving Africa and India helped me understand displacement. The despair that came with it was personal. My grandfather’s stories of living in Punjab branded me from childhood. And I always wanted to trace our family roots in Punjab,” says Singh,who travelled to the villages along the Wagah border while scouting for filming locations. He wanted to recreate the old world charm of India,and the villages along the border offered perfect fodder. “The faces of people,their mannerisms,and the way they tie their turbans,reminded me of my grandfather. I saw houses there made from nanakshahi bricks ,just like during the ’40s. The Punjab of today bears an uncanny resemblance to the Punjab from Partition,” he says.

Co-produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India,and production houses in Netherlands,France and Germany,Qissa… stars actors such as Irrfan (as protagonist Amber Singh),Tillotama Shome,Rasika Dugal and Tisca Chopra. Made on a budget of Rs 3 crore,it was filmed during the end of 2011-12. Amber Singh’s story,says Singh,represents the emotions,anxieties and insecurities such as family honour,empathy and loss,which many displaced people experienced during Partition. In the film,Amber wants a boy to carry forward the name of his family. But he has two daughters whom he raises as boys. “I often found that people who have been dispossessed,found horrible ways to affirm themselves in a new identity. Their sense of vengeance turned inwards,towards their own families. Amber Singh goes to any extent to carry forward his family name,” says Singh,a graduate of Film and Television Institute of India,Pune,who teaches filmmaking in Geneva. The film will be distributed by NFDC in India. His next project,he says,will be a film based on a character from Africa.

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