The Structure of Things

One of the co-writers of the celebrated Partition drama ‘Qissa’, Madhuja Mukherjee describes the creative journey behind its making, and its themes of gender and rootlessness.

Once upon a time, Anup Singh and I started writing Qissa. At that time—that is, about ten years ago—the film seemed a distant mirage. This didn’t not deter us, however, from wanting to tell this tale about partition, uprootment and forced migration, borne by frail bodies, and drawn out on charred landscapes. The narrative structure, which now seems taut, was loosely framed at the screenplay stage, and meandered like an aalaap. In fact, the pattern of storytelling followed musical structure—scenes were symmetrically bound, and were brought back with variations. Moreover, particular scenes foretold an impending calamity; the accounts of bear hunting, for instance, en fin materialises as homicide.

Beginning with the grimness of the opening sequence (shot beautifully by Sebastian Edschmid), which is repeated towards the end, many scenes recur like musical motifs to create an environment of loss. For example, the scenes in which Kanwar (played soulfully by Tillotoma Shome) is pushed to become a man (and also a woman) return like the stench of bereavement. Thus, while young Kanwar watches her sisters, her father’s robust physicality as well as her mother’s voluptuous form, she also looks back at the mirror while stroking her long hair and fixing her kameez. Will Kanwar become a man? Can she be a woman? Both? Other? This pre-puberty figure (performed by the little boy Danish Akhtar) is androgynous, though she is in due course pulled into the realm of power. In many ways, every social being is prepared to become a man, or a woman, and carry this garb termed gender. And gender, as they say critically, is a performance, while such performances circumscribe our (social) existence.

Therefore, the course of becoming and unbecoming a man is illustrated through scenes in which young Kanwar is forced to wear a cloth around the chest (and gifted a gun) and later, via scenes in which she takes the cloth off. The garb of masculinity, nevertheless, leaves a deep mark, and a wound perhaps. Kanwar, who apparently inherits the father’s world, is framed through many such oppositional forces. Therefore, we have Kanwar/Neeli, Kanwar/Baali and Kanwar/Umber. The process of masculinisation, involves her initiation into hunting, which in effect, grooms her to ‘perform the man’, protect Neeli (played by the vivacious Rasika Dugal), and finally kill the father. The killing of the father thus, is part of a larger tragic framework.

Yet, after killing her father, at the point when Neeli and Kanwar flee to another world of sorts, the dilapidated maternal haveli, and its excessively dark quarters, only displays an impossible world. While Umber (played stupendously by Irrfan Khan) came from Pakistan-Punjab, where do they finally arrive? And, where can they go? Perhaps, to the Indian side of Punjab? On this side, however, trees are being cut down to build new homes and frail hopes. Aspirations are as volatile as borders. Despite Umber’s obsession to rebuild and recreate, eventually towards the dreadful end, their (beautiful red-brick) house is burnt down and turned into dry ash.


Umber destroys his home.

Anup and I arrived at this ending after much deliberation. Anup wanted to let the ‘lonely ghost’ rest in peace. But, by then I was angry with Umber, and thought that he deserves to be ceaselessly restless. Therefore, the following scene emerged:

The moon is full and bright, shimmering on the sugarcane. 
Hard shadows criss-cross over Kanwar. 
The dust at his feet rises like whiffs of dark smoke. As he nears the house he notices with puzzlement that the red earth under his feet is steadily blackening. 
He breaks out of the sugarcanes and stops abruptly.

The haveli is a dark ruin, obviously gutted by a fire. Whole walls have fallen to char and ash, blackened timber, burnt furniture, rags of clothes lie on the courtyard floor.

Kanwar’s maternal house mirrors the desolation of their paternal home. It retaliates their hopeless condition, narrates the state in which one arrives through such a perilous journey, demonstrates the locations, which have been devoured by viciousness. Even though they appear to be free, when Neeli tries to evoke Kanwar’s so-called femininity, she can hardly bear the burden of women’s clothes. Indeed, if gender is a dress, it’s a precarious one. Moreover, the use of song in this scene, attaches a poignancy that was only imagined through the screenplay.

Kanwar looks back at the mirror awkwardly as she wears Neeli’s kameez, and then again in pain, when she returns to her ravaged home. However, homes have been shattered many a times within the film. First, Umber wrecks it as they leave Pakistan, and later, Mehar (played remarkably by Tisca Chopra) destroys it one more time, in order to bury a past. Therefore, as Kanwar comes back to this demolished place, Baali, who is a little ‘wild’, reintroduces another world in which memories thrive like a scorched forest. Additionally, looking deep into the mirror, Kanwar perceives a fearful spectre that has haunted her ever since she was born.

Gender is a prickly dress.

Gender is a prickly dress.


A symmetrical framework, and recurrence of particular actions (like instances of putting on and removing clothes), was further extended to spaces, sounds, and characterisation, as well. For instance, one may compare Kanwar with Baali (played by Faezeh Jalali), whose social behaviour and speech are different. Both the body and the mind become locus of constant remodeling. Indeed, in connection to this, one is reminded of a scene, which never made to the film; and yet, was telling.

Kanwar scrambles over sharp, craggy rocks. His sisters are lost in the small woods bordering the hill, but he can still hear them. 
However, there is another sound that he can hear now. It is a shrieking, a weeping that is almost chant-like. He follows the sound by climbing a narrow path curving up the hill.
A WOMAN is screaming and tearing at her clothes with animal- like fury. She grabs fistfuls of dust at her feet and smears it over her head, her hair wild. 
A small crowd has gathered around her. … but she turns on them and slashes one with her fingernails, drawing blood. 
The crowd scatters. Kanwar watches, wide-eyed and scared.
KULBIR [sister]: 
Kanwar! What are you doing here!
Kanwar turns to see his sisters behind him, staring at him in dismay.
What are you doing? Papaji will 
kill you!
KANWAR: Look! He points down.
The woman is writhing and crying disconsolately on the ground.
She has a ghost inside her!
Kanwar looks at her in amazement.
Let’s go! Let’s go before Ma finds out Kanwar is not at home.
Come on. Kanwar, come on!
Kanwar reluctantly follows his sisters down the path.
: If a woman is bad, a ghost enters her body…
SOHNI [sister]: 
The ghost can make the woman do anything. Ma was saying: ghosts are everywhere around us, just waiting for the chance to find themselves a new body…

All unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways.

All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

While Qissa is a fable, bereft of reality-effect and over-detailing, through the repeated use of specific (unlikely) elements, the attempt was to connect personal trauma, political histories and collective memories. The ‘home’ thus, may also be seen the ‘nation’, which is ceaselessly being built and destroyed. Thus, between the point at which Mehar gives birth to a child in a landscape that is drenched with the blood of the brothers, and, the quasi-real space within which the overpowering patriarch devours Kanwar, there is slow fire that destroys certitude, and reminds us that the ghost of Partition is yet to rest in peace.

Madhuja Mukherjee is an artist, filmmaker and an academic. Currently she teaches at the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is the author of 'New Theatres Ltd., the Emblem of Art, the Picture of Success' (2009), and has edited 'Aural Films, Oral Cultures, Essays on Cinema from the Early Sound Era' (2012) and 'Voices and Verses of the Talking Stars', within Readings in Gender Studies, (forthcoming 2014). Her first feature-film 'Carnival' (2012) was premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012, and at other international festivals. 'Kangal Malsat' (2013), graphic-novel, was conceptualized and illustrated by her.

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