Qissa: Film Review

A timely and topical drama that spirals out of control with an odd leaps into the paranormal.

Anup Singh's drama places India's patriarchical values center stage in a story about a young woman raised as her family's sole male heir.

Given the uproar in India about the sexual oppression faced by the country's female population, Qissa could have been a timely addition to the debate, as the film tells the story of a young woman's twisted coming of age as she is raised as a boy by her tyrant of a father. But early promise of a poised and substantial piece gets undermined by a final, inexplicable leap into the paranormal -- an odd denouement for a narrative centered on the very real and corporeal issue of gender-based violence.

Still, the film's topicality and remarkable performances have generated much buzz, with director Anup Singh and his cast given stellar treatment on the festival circuit since Qissa premiered at Toronto in September. Having since traveled to many an Asian festival, including Busan and then Mumbai, Qissa has now finally landed in Europe with a curtain-raiser slot at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Jan. 22 – another homecoming of sorts, as the production was a beneficiary of the festival's Hubert Bals Fund.

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Based on his own insights growing up in a village in the Indian state of Punjab, Anup Singh has accorded Qissa with a historical and social framework that sets out to highlight how fault lines in India lie beyond merely religious denominations. In a story revolving around how Umber Khan (Irrfan KhanThe Life of Pi) is obsessed with having a son to continue his clan's near-vanquished bloodline, Qissa brings to the fore how the violent fallout of the deadly Indo-Pakistan Partition in 1947 can be more sex-based than just sectarian.

Umber's disappointment in seeing his wife deliver a fourth daughter drives him to extreme measures, as he turns to bringing her up as male. All this turns the girl, Kanwar (Tillotama Shome), into a torn and troubled being: confused and repressed, she takes up a chauvinist veneer, which eventually leads her into a bind, as she is forced to marry Neeli (Rasika Dugal), a girl she's been aggressively flirting with.

As Umber's obsession with getting Kanwar to reproduce go into a manic overdrive, bloodshed and death becomes nearly inevitable -- and Qissa retains its drive as it continues to track its protagonist's sexual schisms. But it's when the couple finally are forced to meet their fate, however, that Singh brazen transition into the supernatural derails any possibility of allowing a glimpse into the seemingly irresolvable issue of female emancipation in a heavily misogynist world. With Qissa's polished production values, it's a shame the drive of Singh's argument is not sustained to the end.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 9, 2013

Production Company: Augustus Film, Heimatfilm, Cine-Sud Promotion, National Film Development Corporation India

Director: Anup Singh

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Dugal

Producers: Bero Beyer, Johannes Rexin, Bettina Brokemper, Thierry Lenouvel

Screenwriters: Anup Singh, Madhuja Mukherjee

Director of Photography: Sebastian Edschmid

Production Designer: Tim Pannen

Editor: Bernd Euscher

Music: Beatrice Thiriet

Sound Designer: Peter Flamman

International Sales: The Match Factory

In Punjabi

109 minutes