Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2013, but the Partition-era magic realist story has struggled for a theatrical release for several months. Starring Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal as characters whose lives are irrevocably shaped and scarred by the events of 1947, Qissa will be finally released in select cinemas and will be simultaneously available on video on demand and DVD on February 20.

Financed jointly by the National Film Development Corporation and German funds, Qissa is the story of Umber Singh, a Sikh who flees Pakistan with his family and settles down to an uneasy new life in the Indian side of Punjab. Umber Singh (Irrfan) doesn’t carry visible wounds of the Partition, but the effects on his psyche are apparent when his wife gives birth to a girl, which he insists is a boy. Kanwar (Shome) grows up in a twilight zone between genders and identities, trying to be the man her father always wanted but unable to deny her femininity after she is hurriedly wed to Dugal’s Neeli. 

The relationship between the two women is sensitively and beautifully essayed by Shome and Dugal and, alongside Irrfan’s poignant performance as the possibly deranged patriarch of an entirely female family, count as the movie’s highlights. (The rich cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid also deserves a shout-out.)

Shome and Dugal share with the manner in which they got involved with Qissa, their respective challenges in interpreting their complex characters, and the overall joys and agonies of being members of the permanently waxing and waning Indian arthouse movie scene.

How did you get cast in Qissa, and how did you go about interpreting your characters?
Tillotama Shome: I got involved with Qissa because of [producer] Ruchi Bhimani who was associated with the project at the time. Anup has been looking for an actor for a while – I subsequently met many actors who said they had all auditioned for the project.

I was 33 at the time. Anup was looking for somebody post-pubescent, around 18 or 19 years old. Anup gave me the film to read and asked me which part I would like to play. I felt that Kanwar was too tough – not being a Punjabi was going against me in a big way. We were supposed to shoot the film in two months, and there wasn’t enough time. I said I would do Neeli, not because I wanted to play her, but I didn’t feel I had the time to play Kanwar. He said he wanted me to play Kanwar – that it was tough but I could do it.

Luckily for me, there were funding issues with Qissa. I have never been happier to know that a film was delayed. I had seven months to prepare.

I had to do an audition. The scene was based on movement. Anup made me twist my whole body, put my leg over my neck, my arm over my leg and so on. He wanted me to hold the pose for as long as I could and then release it and say, “Maa.” I thought, here is a nice man, but also weird. It’s only later that I understood that this was for the scene in which Kanwar comes to his mother and says, “Maa, why didn’t you take care of me like you did the rest?” It is one of the few times he utters the word.

Tillotama Shome in Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013). Courtesy Courtesy Heimatfilm/National Film Development Corporation.

Rasika Dugal: I got cast at the last minute, unlike the other actors. Anup was on a recce in Punjab, and he narrated the script to me over Skype. When he told me he wanted me to play Neeli, I wanted to do a little dance. I was very relieved to be offered a role of some significance. That hadn’t been happening to me very often at the time. I wasn’t even concerned with the script at that point. Anup was very respected at the FTII [the Film and Television Institute of India, where Dugal trained in acting] and I had seen his feature film The Name of a River.

I wasn’t offered Kanwar’s role, but I would have opted for Neeli anyway. If I had wanted to challenge myself, I would have chosen Kanwar, but I felt a connection with Neeli.

Shome: Anup taught us bits of the Natya Shastra – how you can use your body in certain ways that allows for a gust of emotion. I felt that the role needed somebody big-built. Anup said he didn’t want me to be manly, rather Kanwar had to be the best man that his father wanted him to be. But I felt that my body needed to be different. We came up with swimming and kalaripayattu, and I was able to co-ordinate my body better and gain a lot of core strength and power. I also had to learn to drive a truck and speak Punjabi. I felt I was in school mode, and I felt that I was doing everything badly.

Anup didn’t give me many references, but when he finally did, he told me to watch Dilip Kumar’s Aan and Taraana. I picked up a few gestures from the movies. Dilip Kumar is very meticulous in his movements, for instance. If he picks up a hanky, he will hold it completely. He doesn’t allow anything to linger. But Anup kept asking me if I had seen anything else in the films. I then had this idea that Dilip Kumar has this magnificent smile when he isn’t actually feeling like smiling. Could Kanwar smile like that? Anup said that is what he wanted me to get from the films.

Dugal: We filmed the second half of Qissa first, such as the bits where Kanwar and Neeli are in the maternal house. The wedding scenes and the initial stuff when they first meet were shot later. I remember being glad that we were shooting in this way. Neeli begins to take on a nurturing attitude in the second half, which came to me pretty naturally. I had to work on the first half, where she is more of a spirit, somebody who is very connected with nature and owns and claims a vast space. Anup had given me the reference of the “Aplam Chaplam” song featuring the lovely sisters Sai and Subbalaxmi. He wanted Neeli’s jumps and turns to be that agile and light.

Theatre actor Fauzeh Jalali, who also appears in the film, helped me with some exercises, since I was expected to play a character younger than my actual age, which is now 30. I found a laugh that was funnier than my own, and it stayed with me for a while.

I didn’t know how to treat the part where the film goes into magic realism. There was too much for me to work on, and too quickly. I did whatever seemed like fun at that time. I listened to Punjabi music, for instance. I had been craving a trip to rural Punjab in any case, since although I am Sikh, I haven’t grown up in the state. I went for morning jogs, read poetry and listened to music and embraced whatever came my way.

Rasika Dugal in Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013). Courtesy Courtesy Heimatfilm/National Film Development Corporation.

How did the two of you work out a rhythm, since the movie hinges greatly on the relationship between Kanwar and Neeli?
Dugal: We both wanted to do a good job, and we were very sincere and very nervous. I had heard of Tillotama, we had common friends, and I had watched her in her movie Shadows of Time. Fauzeh helped us with an exercise that broke the ice. It involved hiding a pin on my person that Tillotama had to find.

Shome: We had never worked together and we met for the first time for the film. I was actually rehearsing with another actress who was originally supposed to play Neeli’s role, so I didn’t spent any time with Rasika. What we had in common was that we both worked very hard on our roles. Every minute we were together, we kept rehearsing our lines.

What are the challenges of opting to work in non-mainstream and independently produced cinema?
Dugal: It is extremely difficult. A carrot is dangled but it is also taken away. Before my debut movie Kshay and Qissa, I was being approached only for small roles in big films, but I had decided against taking these roles. Qissa created a buzz and I have been approached for some very beautiful roles. I managed to cross the stage where the directors are telling me that they want me in their films, but I am stuck at a stage where the producers don’t want me.

It is heartbreaking, and I have gone through four such heartbreaks in the last four months.
Shome: It is tough, but when I look back on the last five years, I have done more than one film a year. That was more than I did when I was staying in Delhi till 2004. I spent four years from 2004 to 2008 studying drama therapy in New York City. I worked with female prisoners, and after that, I was ready to take on the challenges of working in Bombay.

I have worked in Sold, Q’s Ludo and an untitled film with Manoj Bajpayee. Of course, I do feel that I am not as prolific as mainstream actors and that does get me down sometimes, but otherwise I fell blessed.

Would I like more work? Sure.

Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013).