19/02/2015 1:59 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

'Qissa' Review: A Profoundly Moving Partition Tale

Hannes Magerstaedt via Getty Images
MUNICH, BAYERN - JUNE 30: Irrfan Khan and director Anup Singh attend the 'Qissa' Premiere as part of Filmfest Muenchen 2014 on June 30, 2014 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images for Filmfest Muenchen)

Writer and director Anup Singh's second film, like his first, is a tale of loss and displacement located in the context of the Partition of India and its aftermath.

In terms of tone, texture and location, however, 'Qissa' (starring Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal) is far removed from The Name of a River, a Bengali-language film that Singh made more than a decade ago as homage to his cinematic idol Ritwik Ghatak.

Embellished with magnificent performances and enchanting visuals, 'Qissa' is an exquisitely crafted cinematic essay that is at once captivating and disquieting.

It blends a firmly realistic mode of storytelling with broad sweeps of the surreal to deliver a deeply affecting and haunting portrait of lives despoiled as much by history as by human foibles.

The Name of a River was an evocative, multi-layered tale of a man and a woman crossing the river between India and Bangladesh.

In 'Qissa', a Punjabi film releasing nationwide with English subtitles, the director shifts his focus to the other flank of the Partition narrative but articulates similar concerns in a significantly more direct and dark manner.

The basic storyline of 'Qissa' is simple enough, but the treatment of the tangled material and its multiple metaphoric extensions are infinitely more complex.

'Qissa' centres on Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), who is both a victim and a perpetrator of brutalities unleashed by the division of the subcontinent in 1947.

Ejected from his home by communal violence, he painstakingly rebuilds his life with his wife, Meher (Tisca Chopra), and their three daughters on the Indian side of the border.

But the emotionally scarred Umber is unable to live down the bitter past. With every act of desperation that he commits to regain control of his destiny, he pushes himself and his family deeper into a psychological quagmire.

Umber craves for a son to carry the family legacy forward but the fourth child that his wife bears him is also a girl. He takes a snap decision to pass the newborn off as a boy and names 'him' Kanwar.

The delusion inevitably leads to distressing consequences. Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) is trained to hunt and drive even as she grapples to suppress the obvious physical offshoots of womanhood.

The improbable ruse is sustained until a gypsy girl Neeli (Rasika Dugal) enters Kanwar's life and ends up becoming Umber's daughter-in-law.

The betrothal sets in motion a chain of events that the new couple can barely comprehend in the face of the oppressive patriarch's continuing and increasing insensitivity.

The themes of gender dynamics, challenged filial loyalty and twisted personal identities open out by the end of the film into a much larger space where legends and hazy memories impinge upon reality in appalling ways.

While it is Umber Singh's increasing despair that drives the 'Qissa' narrative, the three pivotal women in the drama — Meher, Kanwar and Neeli — provide the essential points of view through which the events are perceived.

'Qissa' is made particularly remarkable by Singh's ability to see and process a seminal historical watershed with equanimity and repose despite the fact that the flashpoints in his "tale of a lonely ghost" often border on the outrageous.

Both Irrfan and Tillotama have extremely difficult roles. The former has to evoke sympathy for a figure that is essentially reprehensible; the latter must convincingly pull off a tightrope walk between being a girl and a boy. Both bring an impressive degree of finesse to bear upon their performances.

No less impressive is Rasika Dugal, who moves from the untamed to the baffled to the eventually empathetic with minimal effort.