Punjabi film Qissa makes history at Toronto International Film Festival

Director Anup Singh’s Qissa made history this week when it became the first Punjabi film to premiere at the Toronto International Film.

Set in the background of the haunting tragedy of India’s partition in 1947, Qissa – which has Irrfan Khan in the lead role of a Sikh named Umber Singh displaced by the Partition – has won plaudits from audiences and reviewers at the Toronto film festival.

In a nutshell, Qissa is the story of that festering wound on the collective conscience of people displaced physically and emotionally from their roots by the Partition of India. Qissa is the story of homelessness, despair and hope. Qissa is the story of people seeking redemption for their thirst for revenge.

The film revolves around Umber Singh, a Sikh who is displaced from Rawalpindi by the Partition and forced to move to India and later to Tanzania.

As director Anup Singh admits, Qissa resonates with the life journey of his family. “Our family was displaced by the Partition, and my grandfather was very bitter about being uprooted from his roots. He knew he would never be able go back to his roots. He remained very bitter.’’

Growing up in a family of refugees, he says, he also saw other refugees with similar tales of homelessness and displacement

“These stories have haunted me all my life. I grew up on these tales, and this film has been at the back my mind for some time,’’ says Anup Singh who was Toronto for the world premiere of his film.

Irrfan Khan, the protagonist of his film, is trapped in a continuous cycle of restlessness and vengeance caused by his uprooting in 1947. He is condemned to repeat this cycle until he gets redemption from it.

Anup Singh says Qissa weaves two kinds of journeys of displacements – the one that his parents live through and the second that you experience indirectly.

His grandfather and parents lived through physical and emotional displacement during the Partition, and young Anup Singh himself experienced displacement when he left India for Tanzania by ship.

“As I left Bombay, there was the infinite sky and the boundless ocean between India and Africa. It was a journey of displacement,’’ says Anup Singh.

Asked why he chose Irrfan Khan for the role of his grandfather, Anup Singh says, “Irrfan Khan is the actor with genuine emotion, not humbug. Unlike other Bollywood actors, he cannot be pre-packaged. Irrfan is spontaneous.
He is alive to every moment and reacts accordingly.’’
Similar, he says, he picked up the three women characters – Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Dugal – after auditioning in Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab and London.

The Sikh filmmaker plans to dub the film into other languages to reach wider audiences.

When Irrfan Khan is asked about his experience of acting in the Punjabi film, he says, “Initially, I was not sure whether I will be able to do a film in Punjabi. But everything went off well and I am very proud of the film.’’

Anup Singh, who is based in Geneva where he taught cinema, made his directorial debut in 2002 with The Name of a River. He is a product of the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune. (News East West).