We are all Refugees, our Homeland is Each Other—Filmmaker Anup Singh
Noted filmmaker Anup Singh recently wrote Irrfan: Dialogues with
the Wind, a book that dwells on his friendship with the acclaimed actor Irrfan Khan. Singh
also made two movies—Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013) and The Song of
Scorpions (2017) with Irrfan (1967-2020). Born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania,
Singh, whose films have won numerous prestigious awards, graduated from the
Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, in the mid-eighties and lives in
Switzerland. Arvind Das spoke
with Singh about his connection with Irrfan and how cinema can bring us closer
to home. Edited excerpts:
Let’s start with your
book—Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind. It reads like an elegy but is a
celebration of life. Would you please share the kind of relationship you shared
Every time you might ask me this question, my
answer would be different! That was precisely the excitement and the challenge
of being with Irrfan—he was ceaselessly different. As a person and actor, he
was always attempting to seek, in every object, person and thought, a path to
grow. Just as he refused numerous roles because they were too similar to what
he had done before, he came to a friend to surprise, to astonish, to always
initiate something new. I think this is what we enjoyed and cherished deeply
about each other. Every time we met, we would carry with us a thought, a
gesture, a poem, a stone, a story, which, we hoped, would fill the other with
wonder. We were passionately committed to the expansion of each other’s
experience of life. He might, for example, bring me two lines from Mir Taqi Mir:
‘dekh to dil ki jaañ se uthtā hai
ye dhuāñ sā kahāñ se uthtā hai’.
[Check if it rises from the heart or the soul
where is this smoke rising from?]
And I might bring him a sequence from Yasujiro Ozu’s film,
Late Autumn, for him to see a simple, slow curve of the head by the great
actress, Setsuko Hara. And then we could discuss these lines, this motion of
the head for hours. The two films we made together would not have been possible
without this strange, exhilarating friendship we shared.
Watching Qissa, based on the
partition, and The Song of Scorpions, I noticed they follow the epic form with
a touch of melodrama. Also, your first film, The Name of the River, is a
tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. Would you please say something about this influence?
Some films burn your nervous system, and it
never heals. Under the ash of whatever you believed, perceived, affirmed, there
now constantly burns a flame that puts your every thought and action to test.
All convictions burn away, except one: look again. Which means, think again,
taste again, touch again, live again. And again, because every moment is new
and, if you want to really live, every moment your life has to change. This is
the gift—sometimes it seems like a curse!—Ritwik
brought me. This, to me, is what the epic tradition suggests.
Think of black holes in space, for example. The
gravity there is so fierce that not even light can escape. We, therefore,
cannot see a black hole, but by paying attention to the distorting effect on
what is around and on the light itself, we can hypothesise, deduce, surmise,
guess—but never see. However, to even infer the presence of the black hole from
the distortions around, we need to posit what is a distortion in space.
Too often, we are ready to judge a person by
their name, what he or she wears. We accept what we are told about others as
true—the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak questions such unexacting and easy attempts to
understand our life. We, everything around us, are black holes. We need to be
imagined, deduced, and dreamed about.
In Ghatak’s movie
Subarnarekha, I remember the question, ‘Yahan kaun nahi hai refugee—Who is not
a refugee here’? Your films take it further till there is no end. For me, it’s
a question of ‘mukti’ (salvation).
Indeed, we are all refugees. Not
because we have lost some mythical homeland. Our homeland is each other.
Wherever we find ourselves in the making and, in our dialogue with ourselves
and a community, we are home. This is a process and a dialogue. It will never
end. All three films of mine seek to celebrate this sense of dialogue. In The
Name of a River (2003), we open to possibilities like a river. In Qissa, we see
how we destroy our world and damn ourselves by clinging to a singular belief.
The Song of Scorpions is about how we choose to breathe on this earth. Do we
just keep breathing our world in, taking and taking? Or do we learn to breathe
out and give?
You once told me about
Dhrupad maestro Dagar sa’ab. Were you also trained under Zia
Mohiuddin Dagar like director Mani Kaul? I ask because the music in all three films is
something to ponder over, and it is central to the narrative.
I never trained under Dagar Sa’ab. I have spent
many long hours with him, journeyed with him and listened to him talk and sing
and play the Rudra veena. He stays within me like his music. There is a call in
his music, but in the way he sings or plays Dhrupad, he never establishes who
that call is for. There are details in his music that stop time, even while
there is a constant wandering away from any given goal. One phrase to another
is a question and an answer but without an end. He can make us reside in a
moment even as he prepares us to apprehend our fundamental homelessness.
Not simply for the music, but for the very
moulding of the movement of my films, I am influenced by the tender yearning in
Dagar Sa’ab’s music: his sense of evoking rather than installing an emotion,
his play with details that hint at one rasa and lead us to another and at the
end, in any rasa, he always leaves us with a sense of gentleness.
You made The Name of the
River in Bangla, Qissa in Punjabi and The Song of Scorpions in Rajasthani. I
cannot think of a contemporary filmmaker who has made films in three languages. Could you easily have made them in Hindi or
I had to fight a lot with my producers to do
this! I believe every terrain impels certain tones and rhythms into how we
speak. For example, a river is bound to encourage sibilance, as a desert might
[link] a camel’s rhythm to a language. Drama rises, stands against and slips
back into the environment. Language is shaped by the terrain, just as the
landscape emerges in the language. Each gives scintillation to the other. I
spend months living in the terrain where I plan to make a film. And everywhere
I have been, I have seen how language, terrain, gesture, and the weight of an
emotion are deeply connected. My attempt in my films has been to study this
ecology. To see how it imprisons as well as frees us.
In The Name of the River, we
see water all around. Qissa is situated in the field, and The Song of Scorpions
is set in the desert. Please tell me about the landscapes you pick for your
movies. Do they signify something special?
In many ways, the terrain embodies the theme of
my films and the inner landscape of my characters. How the actors move, act (or
not) in the landscape suggests the conflicts and balance within and between
them. I believe that our residence in this terrain and our selves are
profoundly connected. Water reflects. The surface hides depth. The Name of a
River is a dialogue between what we see and so much more that we can only
apprehend if we leave the shore of our preconceptions and enter the watery
depths of history, legend, myth and ourselves. Qissa is a film about
perspectives. What is close, and how did it suddenly become distant? The line
of the horizon encloses me in my home, my field, my land, my country. And I
want to think that the horizon line might not be a border, that the world does
not end there. The desert is an infinity of barrenness and yet holds oases.
Legions have perished here, but lovers, poets
and saints have consummated their passion or gained enlightenment. The desert
holds both poison and balm. How we choose to see the desert perhaps tells us
how we see ourselves. What do we choose to see—scorpion or song? Geography is
the landscape of my film’s soul.