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A “scorpion singer” from the Rajasthan desert is pursued by a particularly tenacious camel trader in The Song of Scorpions, the third feature from Switzerland-based British filmmaker Anup Singh (Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost). After making films in Bengali and Punjabi, this myth-like fairy tale — albeit one with some incongruous-feeling modern touches — was filmed in Hindi, though Singh has again cast his Qissa star, Rajasthan-born Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, The Lunchbox), as the male lead.
France-based Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, Paterson) plays the equally determined female protagonist, which should help to slightly broaden its appeal among art house cognoscenti in the Occident but which might make Indian audiences wonder if Singh is aware there are a few talented local actresses out there who would have killed for a chance to bewitch Khan’s character in a Hindi-language — if Euro-funded — epic. However, with its gorgeous visions of endless orange sand dunes and the ethnic-sounding titular chants, this was clearly always made more for Western audiences more than local filmgoers, for whom all the swooning exoticism and the intentional omission of everyday realities might be a tad much. As such, this Song should warble its way onto other, especially non-Asian, festival rosters after its premiere in Locarno on the Piazza Grande.
Generally speaking, the pic suffers from a somewhat fuzzy storytelling style. For example, there is a little bit of background information missing that is only explained in the press book and which helps make sense of some of the particulars of the story. Legend has it that a sting from a scorpion from the Thar Desert, in western Rajasthan, will kill a person in one day unless a sage singer is found who can “read” the melody in the victim’s pulse and come up with a chant that functions as a life-saving antidote.
One such scorpion singer is Nooran (Farahani), whose wise and disciplined grandmother (Bollywood royalty Waheeda Rehman), affectionally called Amma, still sings to the dunes to practice and who feels Nooran isn’t quite ready yet to take over the baton when the film opens. By that time, the beautiful and independent-minded Nooran has already been chased for over a year by a handsome, clever and older dromedary peddler, Aadam (Khan), who magically seems able to figure out where Nooran travels to, so he can make sure their paths cross frequently.
But the story Singh, who also wrote the screenplay, has in store isn’t one of two secret, star-crossed lovers, even if what will be set in motion will spiral out of control in a way that’s reminiscent of archetypical myths and ancient tragedies. After Aadam tries to insist they get together once more, Nooran lets some of the protective men of her village beat him up. Later, in one of the film’s (too) few instances of humor, Aadam explains rather sheepishly that the fight definitely “wasn’t about a camel.” Even so, the bearded trader seems to hold no grudge toward Nooran and suggests taking her in after she’s viciously assaulted one night by a man who pretends to have been bitten by a scorpion and she subsequently loses her amma in the dunes and, from the double trauma, then loses her capacity to sing and thus her livelihood.
Indeed, the contours of the plot suggest those of legends, myths and morality tales and The Song of Scorpions seems to aspire to function like one, especially in the way the truth is revealed by slowly peeling away the thin layer of deception and the story then segues into (spoiler ahead!) the gloriously melodramatic if morally somewhat dubious territory of sacrifice-as-vengeance. As with all good cautionary tales, the real story isn’t too complex and the big reveal as such doesn’t really come as a surprise. Instead, Singh is more interested in how the characters react to the discovery of the truth, which leads to the third act’s dramatic events. The development of the two characters is also very much in the fairy tale vein, with both Noora and Aadam painted with very broad brushstrokes and not a lot of individual detail. In that aspect, it makes sense to cast people like Khan and Farahani, whose charisma can do a lot of the heavy lifting and who have no problem with the film’s sumptuous and intense close-ups.
After making two films that were tied to the historic events of the partition of India, Singh here at first seems to have wanted to make a timeless tale. The production and costume design, especially, seem to initially place the story in ageless world of poverty and harsh desert living, though, as the film progresses, it becomes clear the modern world, with its cars and phones and highways, is lurking just around the corner. This transition isn’t entirely smooth and actually seems to create more questions than it solves.
The poverty of a character like Aladdin, to name but one example of a famously poor fairy tale protagonist, is accepted and even necessary because it makes Princess Jasmine all the more unlikely a match, first raising the stakes and finally making the happy end an even happier one. But by placing Nooran’s myth-like story within the real world, her obvious destitution becomes very real and the sinuous camera movements around her barren homestead risk turning the aestheticized images of the more-than-modest living quarters into something akin to poverty porn. (And yes, Aadam seems a bit better off, but he’s hardly a prince.) A host of socio-political issues also automatically rear their head when you decide to set a film in the present. For example, the characters are all Muslims, a small religious minority in Rajasthan, but even though there are elements of (initially) unexplained behavior and violence, this obvious source of friction never once comes up. So why the choice to make them Muslims in the first place? If the story had to function as a kind of myth or morality tale, wouldn’t it be better if it was set in an undefined time?
The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with Swiss cinematographers Pietro Zuercher and Carlotta Holy-Steinemann relishing the opportunity to film a country that looks so unlike their own. However, as foreigners, they do have a bit of a postcard-pretty approach to India, which won’t hurt in Europe but which might rub Asian audiences the wrong way. Beatrice Thiriet’s score is enveloping, while Marie-Pierre Frappier’s unhasty editing rhythms also cleave closer to a European art house feature than any kind of local mainstream production.
Production companies: Feather Light Films, KNM
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Irrfan Khan, Waheeda Rehman, Shashank Arora, Kritika Pande, Sara Arjun, Shefali Bhushan, Tillotama Shome
Writer-director: Anup Singh
Producers: Saskia Vischer, Shahaf Peled, Michel Merkt
Executive producers: Justin Deimen, Gin Kai Chan, Jeremy Sim, Shiladitya Bora
Directors of photography: Pietro Zuercher, Carlotta Holy-Steinemann
Production designer: Rakesh Yadav
Costume designers: Divya & Nidhi Gambhir, Kay Devanthey
Editor: Marie-Pierre Frappier
Music: Beatrice Thiriet
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: The Match Factory
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