Anup Singh’s Qissa, a masterful indictment of patriarchy, plays with complex notions of displacement and loss of identity, at the heart of which is a distinct queerness that will resonate with LGBTQ audiences. In the film, when his fourth daughter is born, Sikh refugee Umber (Irrfan Khan) deludes himself that she is male, and raises her as a boy, Kanwar.
Kanwar is played by Danish Akhtar during the childhood years, and later by Tillotama Shome, and the two actors inhabit a tragic persona who measures up rather well in being a good son for Umber, but remains a strangely half-formed being. Subversion informs almost every frame of Qissa. The irony of Kanwar, herself a girl but conditioned to be a boy, dressing up in her mother’s clothes as a child, plays itself out in a touching little scene that has been part of many films with a trans narrative (most recently in Zoya Akhtar’s segment in Bombay Talkies). Of course, here the situation is inverted. In a finely calibrated performance, Shome employs no masculine tics — an initial stiffness in demeanour settles into a more fluid deportment that bring both dualities that afflict her palpably to the surface.
To this mix, is added the feisty gypsy girl, Neeli (Rasika Dugal), who is married off to Kanwar only to discover the subterfuge that she refuses to play along with, instead attempting to help her ‘husband’ come to terms with her actual self. There is no denying that there is certainly some sexual frisson between the women, thanks to Dugal’s smouldering intensity that is such a foil to Shome’s more stoic neediness. However, given the time frame of this period piece (the late 60s), it is unlikely to be articulated or even acknowledged, and the two women are perhaps not the kind to engage in wilful acts of transgression even if they now share an emotional intimacy borne out of understanding the ‘other’. Neeli can certainly conceive their living together as sisters or friends, but she doesn’t gloss over the fact that they had first encountered each other as star-crossed lovers even if her falling in love with another woman is an amusing notion. Dugal (who is a force of nature in the role) provides a pellucid grandeur to this maturing of a child-woman into a noble and compassionate person aeons more self-possessed than the pining paragons of self-sacrifice that have filled the annals of Indian cinema. Shome, in her turn, makes it achingly self-evident that transitioning into a new gender identity is a complex psychological process that cannot be simply achieved by appropriating Neeli’s hand-me-down clothes, which, in fact, she is repulsed by. Neeli would rather Kanwar embrace her femininity, but even if her body is already that of a woman (and always has been), writ large on Shome’s magnificently conflicted visage, are two decades of cruel conditioning and the immediacy of a violent struggle between nature and nurture.
A possible denouement, gently hinted at, involves the two women living out their co-dependence even as Kanwar continues as a man, now simply as a charade, ironically making use of the male privilege, so brutally bestowed upon her by her father, to ensure that her ‘family unit’ remains above reproach in society’s eyes. One day they would celebrate Lohri together in the open, she assures Neeli, the only person who has accepted her as she truly is.
However, rather than spin a yarn whose resolution lies in an almost anachronistic lesbian wish-fulfillment as in Deepa Mehta’s Fire or more recently, Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya, or even a feel-good female kinship free from the yoke of parochial oppression as in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor, Singh is content with leaving the window of possibilities open-ended. This is not because he is squeamish about following these storylines through (as most filmmakers dealing with queer subtext) but because of other overpowering thematic preoccupations. However, his accurately judged fleshing out of these situations ensures that Qissa is on a remarkably strong footing when it comes to its alternative themes.