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[Y]Watch: Of A Girl Brought Up As A Boy, ‘Qissa, The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost’

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By Devika Kohli:

Qissa’, an internationally acclaimed movie directed by Anup Singh, is the first film to be shot under an Indian-German collaboration. The film, released in Indian theaters on 20th February 2015, has already won accolades from critics and audiences alike. It won the Neptac Award for World Film under the category of Contemporary World Cinema at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It is interesting to note that the movie bears a strong resemblance to the novel ‘L’Enfant du Sable’ (The Sand Child) published in 1985 and written by a renowned Maghrebian author Tahar Ben Jelloun.


This was the first thought that crossed my mind as I watched the screening of ‘Qissa‘ at the 10th Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. While Jelloun’s novel is set up in post-colonial Morocco, Singh’s movie is recounted in post-partition, post-colonial India. However, the primary theme of the movie and the novel are the same, namely, the (de)construction of identity which runs parallel to the idea of the (re)construction of a nation.

In ‘The Sand Child‘, Hajji Ahmed Suleyman, the father of seven daughters, resolves to raise his eighth daughter, Mohammed Ahmed, as a boy. Similarly, Umber Singh (Irfan Khan), frustrated by his failure to give birth to a son, is determined to raise his fourth daughter Kanwar Singh (Tillotama Shome), as a boy, against his wife’s wishes. Both the patriarchs are driven by the desire to save face in society and reassert their masculinity. They go to extra-ordinary lengths to avert suspicion, such as binding the breasts of the girl, conducting a false coming-of-age ceremony, encouraging “manly” behavior in Kanwar/Ahmed, and providing them all the male privileges as well as finding them suitable, submissive brides, to ensure that the lie remains concealed.

Kanwar’s sisters are severely beaten up by the father when she incurs a fracture due to an accidental fall, triggered by an argument with one of the sisters. It is a heart wrenching scene where the three daughters shudder in terror and cry out for help to their mother. The father silences them. They will never dare to cross their ‘brother‘ again. In his blind obsession to maintain the legitimacy of his male heir, he even attempts to rape his daughter in-law Neeli, while she is trying to run away from an unhappy marriage. It is certainly one of the most poignant scenes and a turning point in the movie. Haji Ahmed Suleiman resorts to similar iron-handed strategies to ensure absolute respect for his son (daughter). Thus, all the female voices in the family of Kanwar and Ahmed are silenced and condemned to a life of deceit, oppression and patriarchal tyranny. Therefore, Singh’s movie and Jelloun’s novel become critical commentaries on gender preference.

The idea of (de)construction of identity in the movie is effectively conveyed by the trope of the mirror. There is a recurrence of scenes where Kanwar looks at her reflection in the mirror, searching for answers, struggling to unravel and fathom her true identity, an idea she voices out to Neeli in the second half of the movie. Her agony and her pent up rage are quite apparent in a scene where she takes off her clothes and asks her father (here he is a figment of her imagination) to look at her, “the girl he refused to acknowledge his entire life“. She is the “lonely ghost“, as the title suggests, who ultimately loses everyone she has ever loved. Kanwar’s helplessness and confusion are also conveyed by the blacking out of the screen for a few seconds throughout the movie, thus mirroring the uncertainty and isolation experienced by her. Jelloun’s book on the other hand conveys the same idea by questioning the authenticity of the narrator in the novel.

This movie is definitely a must watch as it conveys a socially sensitive issue with remarkable deftness. The camaraderie between Rasika Duggal (Neeli) and Tillotama Shome (Kanwar) is a delight to watch. Tisca Chopra and Irfan Khan are absolutely convincing in their characters. Although the plot of the movie wasn’t new to me (having encountered it in Jelloun’s book), it’s definitely a first of its kind in Bollywood. Anup Singh has dared to bare issues of complexity of identity, and gender preference with precision.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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