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Who is not a refugee?

Who is not a refugee?

Update – Qissa film wins award at Toronto International FilmFestival…

DIRECTOR Anup Singh told us there was cause for a double celebration when he heard his film ‘Qissa’ had picked up a prestigious award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

On Sunday (September 15), it was announced that his film about Partition and identity and starring Irrfan Khan had taken the NETPAC award for the best Asian film at the 2013 edition.

The NETPAC Jury remarked: “The Award for the best Asian film at Festival 2013 goes to Qissa, directed by Anup Singh, for its sensitive portrayal of the issues of identity and displacement that affect people not only in India, but in all parts of the world and for brilliance of cinematic craft and the choice of metaphor that has been employed to tell a moving story that is bound to provoke thoughts, spark debate and give its viewers an intense experience.”

Singh, who spoke to before the premiere of his movie in Toronto, earlier this month, told us: “Today’s (Sunday, on receiving the award) my wedding anniversary and my wife had just tucked away a bottle of champagne into the fridge when I had the phone call from my producer, Johannes Rexin, that Qissa has been awarded the NETPAC Jury’s award  for best world/international premiere in TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema section.”

It gives Qissa tremendous momentum as it looks to secure territories abroad outside of India, where it was supported by the National Film Development Corporation alongside German, French and Dutch producers.

“I am grateful and humbled that my film about a refugee on this earth, a film in a minority language like Punjabi, can find a home finally within the wondrous community that is world cinema today.

“I thank the NETPAC jury, Cameron Bailey and TIFF, my resolute producers, MatchFactory, and my dear and glorious cast – Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal. And finally the crew, in India, Germany, France, Netherlands — my dear colleagues, I salute you!”

Our earlier story….

Partition film with searing questions gets Toronto world premiere

LIFE is a journey, whether that involves physical movement of one kind or another.

For some it was the defining experience of the 20th century with huge displacements of people – sometimes from one continent to another.

A film, which has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 8 & 9, ‘Qissa’, is set in the aftermath of one of the most haunting periods of history on the subcontinent.

Partition – when Pakistan was carved out of India – remains a wound on the conscience of a generation, now slowly slipping from view.

It also tackles head on another huge subject – the obsession with having male heirs.

Director Anup Singh has mined his own deeply personal experiences of displacement and new beginnings to explore the psychology and trauma of that tumultuous event and weaves a personal tail of loss, lament and redemption.

Singh said he is delighted to be showing ‘Qissa’ (which means folktale) in Toronto.

“I’ll immediately know that fate of the film if I’m invited or not to a true Punjabi meal after the screening,” he joked to

He is thrilled about being able to share his vision and passion on an important stage for world cinema.

“I believe Qissa unfolds those secret and fragile aspects of our life that we are unable to share with others in our daily living.

“I believe an audience that remains vulnerable to its inner spirit and is fearless about celebrating life in all its complexity will find Qissa an experience that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

His own parents were part of the exodus from East Africa and moved to the UK, when he was a boy and it resonated with the experience of his late grandfather who had experienced the horror and fallout of Partition.

Singh explained:  “I have a memory of my grandfather from my childhood: he was a tall, powerful old Sikh, with a wild beard.

“I remember him weeping. I remember him telling me tales of the partition and weeping. As a child, I was horrified to see such a formidable man break down so utterly.”

His grandfather is the inspiration behind the central character of Umber in ‘Qissa’, played by Irrfan Khan.

Singh’s grandfather, he told ACV, was a moan of ‘immense journeys’.

From Rawalpindi, in what became Pakistan, he moved to Africa, making a home there, before going to Mumbai and raising eight children there.

Later in his life he moved to the UK, where he died.

This nomadic restlessness, suggests Singh, was a reaction to something deep and abiding – a kind of forgetting of what had happened and a hope in new starts.

Inspired by the Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, Singh explored what he feels is his ‘teacher’s’ ‘very simple but frightening question, “who is not a refugee?”’

“Throughout his life, my grandfather carried a bitter resentment about his loss of home. It tore him apart and often he could not help but turn on his own family with a kind of despairing violence. Somehow, any which way, he needed to avenge his loss,” revealed Singh.

Singh described the film as ‘gentle’, even though it has incredibly painful subjects at its core and says the ‘violence’ within Umber and his family is redeemed by the women around him.

“Qissa does not thump out any agenda. It is not cynical. It is not bitter. It suggests through its women characters the possibility of tenderness and redemption.”

Yet, there is no denying some deep lying sense of loss and rejection for Umber and Singh seeks to ask a powerful question in all this.

“Over the last few decades, so many other nations have been torn apart, so many other peoples butchered, scattered as refugees and so many simply lost.

“In Qissa, the tale does ask the question as to just how much each one of us is culpable?”

He challenges us to change and actively wrestle with beliefs and practices that, while at one level seem outmoded and worn, we refuse to tackle.

“Isn’t it true that despite our laments about the savage and violent world we inhabit today, we are unable to give up our communal or caste or class prejudices?

“We are unable to tear out the patriarchy that keeps brutalising women as much on public buses as in our families, schools and where not?”

For Singh, the sensitivities and care with which we approach some topics has a faint whiff of hypocrisy and delusion.

“So many of these sensitivities simply mask guilt and culpability.”

Singh also experienced the loss of home, having to move as a young boy from Africa, where his parents were settled to the UK, but the journey also kindled something very profound and inspiring, stirring the very ambition to make films.

“My parents and I were forced to leave Africa in my adolescence and, later in life, forced to leave India.

“These were devastating journeys of homelessness.

“But, with all the pain, I also always carry with me another memory – the memory of those enchanted nights on the vast ocean between Africa and India when a screen was raised on the deck of the ship and a film flickered between the infinite sky above and the boundless sea below.

“And I knew at that moment that as long as I could invoke this experience of cinema, where it pulsed as a part of the larger cosmos, I would never be homeless.”

At its essence, he argued, ‘Qissa’ played to those two emotions – the voyage of despair, the lust for vengeance and the other of affirmation and redemption.

In choosing Irrfan Khan to play Umber there was a very clear line of thinking.

Singh, in email exchange with us, stated: “When I was writing Qissa, I wanted Balraj Sahni for the main lead.

“Unfortunately, he was dead already more than 30 years then. By the time, Qissa was actually ready to be cast, I knew it could only be Irrfan.

“To me, he’s one of the rare actors after Balraj Sahni who does not belittle our sense of the human spirit with humbug emotions. “

Singh felt too much of the time actors are conveying ‘pre-packaged emotions’ in a ‘world of flimflam’,  but that an actor of Irrfan’s class brought ‘the inner truth of emotion and unruffled imagination’ that made a difference and would allow audiences to feel engaged and connected.

Singh disclosed that they had cast the net wide in looking for actors: auditioning in Mumbai, Delhi, across Punjab and even London.

Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome, Rasika Dugal, playing three of the main women parts, all had the subtlety and emotional dexterity that was necessary, he explained.

The very fulsome praise for his actors is too long to replicate here, but he said their performances evoked ‘music’,  ‘a fluent expressiveness of nature’  and ‘exhilaration’.

Singh spent many years living in London, as a nascent filmmaker, directing India TV productions and working as a screen journalist and BBC2 consultant, before taking up a film teaching post in Geneva, where he is now based.

His first film, ‘The Name of a River’ (2002), was a huge critical success, won several international awards and is out on DVD as part of the British Film Institute’s collection.

‘Qissa’ has been financed from Germany (Heimat Films), India (National Film Development Corporation of India), Holland and France.

It is expected to be released in India next year, while Singh hopes he will be able to secure a deal for the UK after Toronto.


Pictured: Anup Singh (middle) with Irrfan Khan and Rasika Duggal

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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