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

Posted on May 11, 2015

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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