A leading light of the alternative Indian cinema that draws inspiration from the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Geneva-based Anup Singh has built a slow and steady but distinctive directorial career. With two critically acclaimed feature films – Ekti Nodir Naam (The Name of a River, Bengali) and Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Punjabi) – behind him, he has now completed his third, The Song of Scorpions (Rajasthani, Sindhi), starring Irrfan Khan, Golshifteh Farahani and Waheeda Rehman. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and earned glowing critical notices, confirming his status as a director with a unique vision of life and art. Here, Anup Singh shares with film critic Saibal Chatterjee his views on the universe of his cinema, on dealing with a world in turmoil, and on the thrust of his new film, slated for release in India in 2018.
You are a filmmaker who, by your own admission, is at home in the world despite having been uprooted from the land of your birth. The cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, is steeped in the pain of deracination. Would you agree that, at least in this respect, you are a bit different from your 'cinematic guru'?
AS: No, I disagree. I don't see Ghataks's cinema like that at all. In our time, we take it for granted that cinema as such is only possible as long as it serves the narrative. But Ghatak's cinema, deliberately and ceaselessly breaks through the boundaries of the narrative. We can say Ghatak's narratives are of loss, of the closing of spaces & identities, of the fraudulence of the self and the state, but they are also of the courage to resist, protest & challenge everything & everyone that limits the human spirit's independence. His narratives are scintillating in their ability to condemn human virulence while, simultaneously, affirming compassion.
And his cinema is even more than that. His wide-angle expansion of spaces, his ability to sculpt vulnerability in even the most heinous of faces, his ferocious rhythms that, paradoxically, bring things and people and spaces and histories together in luminous dignity - all this is beyond the demands of the narrative. Here is a cinema constantly in process - when it ends in the cinema-theatre it continues within us! And it will continue within us all our life. Why? Because it never accepts any one of the multiple 'truths' it presents as the 'truth'. By bringing everything & everyone in dialogue with each other, he allows for the possibility of growth & change.
That is what has been the gift of all my teachers to me. They've all shown me in their practice and in their life that we are all vulnerable to change, we are all possibilities. That's what I learn from Ritwik Ghatak. His cinema always escapes all attempts to limit it in any way.
How easy or difficult is it for Indian filmmakers like you who refuse to follow the crowd to get their stories funded in an era when commercial viability is a constant requirement? What are the specific strategies that you need to devise to keep making the kind of cinema you believe in?
AS: "Commercial viability", "strategy" - I've never thought of cinema in those terms. I try and be as honest as possible to one question in all my work: how can I live without being ashamed of myself in our world today?
In one way or another, this question is aflame in all of us. When I meet a producer that's the question I bring to the fore in the very beginning. And all the producers I've worked with as yet have whole-heartedly joined me in my experiments to answer this question. That is the question that drives us and we try and be worthy of this quest in each other. This might not sound humble at all, but it's what my producers and I believe in: as much as commercial viability, we seek in our work to be viable to the fullness of life.
You set Ekti Nadir Naam in Bengal, Qissa in Punjab and The Song of Scorpions in Rajasthan. Is the wide cultural and social palette that you've worked with a conscious choice? Is being a man of journeys one of the reasons why you do not instinctively confine yourself to any particular geographical space?
AS: I am very uneasy with the way we've chosen to recognise ourselves as human beings - citizens of one country, members of one community, defined by narrow notions of gender. We seem now not only to reject but to actively resent being thought as belonging to the human race. That saddens me profoundly as, to me, it seems the primal cause of the dying of our planet. In my cinema, my attempt is to celebrate all that we are. If not in the world, at least in the world of our imagination we can acknowledge, honour, learn from each other and, together, live life creatively and in peace.
Is the fable-like, mystical quality of Qissa also an element in The Song of Scorpions? How is the new film different in terms of tone, texture and philosophy from your previous two feature films?
AS: The questions are the same, but, perhaps, I'm being able to articulate them better as I grow from film to film. What is truth? What is the body or mind's relationship to the other, to water, to fire, to wind, to the earth?
And, then, this question, which for me finds its fullest expression in The Song of Scorpions: given the world of violence we live in, every moment of our life we are breathing in some kind of poison into ourselves. The critical question for all of us today is: when we breathe out, do we want to breathe out the same poison we have taken in? Or do we choose, instead, to breathe out a song? What explains your incredible rapport with Irrfan Khan?
AS: I don't really know what to say. Perhaps it's something as simple as that we never gossip. When we meet, we only talk about our work. And, it's obvious to each one of us, that we'll fight every fear and limit to encourage and help each to go for the furthest reaches of our imagination.
What does Golshifteh Farahani bring to The Song of Scorpions? When did you first feel that she should play Nooran?
AS: As you know, Golshifteh is a person living in exile. She lives in the constant pain of separation from her country, Iran, and her family. However, instead of allowing this pain to embitter her, she followed it to the end where it showed her that, finally, we are all strangers to ourselves.
She has taken this insight to fearlessly open herself to the other possibilities within her. This is what makes her the exciting, multi-dimensional actress she is.
We met at an international film festival where Qissa was being screened and we spent the next two days talking non-stop about films and acting. Talking to her, I soon realised that Golshifteh’s journey as a person and artist in many ways mirrors Nooran, the female protagonist’s journey in The Song of Scorpions: Nooran, too, has to journey into an exile from her own body and identity, fight her primal instinct to seek vengeance and, finally, learn to celebrate herself.
At the end of those two days, I knew Golshifteh was the ideal actress to play Nooran.
Waheeda Rehman has come out of retirement to play a role in The Song of Scorpions. What prompted you to cast her and was it difficult to convince her to be a part of your film?
AS: There is a role in The Song of Scorpions that carries the primal impulse from which the film emerged. It’s a role that holds my deepest beliefs and hopes. Obviously, I needed an actress whose very presence, whose every gesture would give breath to this secret source of the film. Once I started thinking of the casting, Waheeda ji kept recurring in my thoughts. The gentleness and insight with which she looks at you, the grace of her movements were very important to me - she’s like the incarnation of a song of yearning that we all carry within ourselves. The song that fills us with the desire to live more fully.
So, I approached her for the role, but was very much aware that she had been saying ‘no’ to everything for the last eight years. Luckily, she had seen Qissa and simply asked me to tell her about the role. I said to her that the role was about a woman who, when she sang, could bring flowers to bloom in a desert. And that was enough! Her imagination immediately understood the role and she said, “yes”!