Anup Singh whose critically acclaimed Qissa is an uncompromising film with sterling performances by its actors

Anup Singh knew he was going to get a lot of questions about the titular ghost in his brilliantly crafted Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost that was recently screened at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film starring Irrfan, Tillotama Shome, Tisca Chopra and Rasika Duggal won the Silver Gateway award for the second best film in the India Gold competition. Earlier, the film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Netpac award for World or International Asian Film.

“We all have to deal with ghosts of our past. It was just a logical way to take the story forward by making it literal,” Anup clarifies, explaining his choice to add an element of magic realism into an otherwise naturalistic film with powerhouse performances from the ladies.

Especially Tillotama Shome, who plays a girl raised as a boy in this film that explores identity, gender and sexual preferences defying every stereotype usually associated with films made on LGBT issues.

Qissa takes a rather complex issue and breaks it down simply as a nature versus nurture story, full of twists and surprises us every few minutes, every bit justifying its title. It is an extremely compelling tale told on celluloid with hauntingly beautiful visuals. And there’s a lot that’s unsaid and open to interpretation. “That was the idea. I didn’t want to spell out. It’s all intentionally left blank for you to fill in,” says Anup.

Was Kanwar Singh (Tillotama Shome) raised as a boy in the film really born as a girl or transgender? “It’s up to you. What do you think?” he asks. Irrespective of what she was born as, Kanwar embraces this identity of a boy with all seriousness. Instead of wanting to dress up as a girl or act feminine, Kanwar is actually repulsed by the idea of being a woman, thanks to her father Umber Singh’s (Irrfan is delightfully despicable and scarily natural in this role) utmost denial and compulsive need for a son.

Anup spent over a decade of his life writing and making this ambitiously arthouse, uncompromising film that required quite a bit of commitment from its leading ladies.

All three of them — Tisca Chopra (the mother), Tillotama (the ‘son’) and Rasika (the ‘son’s’ friend/lover) — delivered their complex roles with a great amount of sensitivity.

It wasn’t an easy film to get funding for but help came from Germany’s Heimatfilm, National Film Development Corporation of India, Dutch production house Augustus Film and Cine-Sud, France and these international collaborations and recent festival acclaim would make it easier for the film to find markets around Europe.

Anup hopes that the film will connect to everyone at a unique and different level and provide deeply personal answers to the questions it raises. Is Kanwar a man? Or a woman? An Indian? Or a Pakistani? Alive? Or a ghost?

Watch out for this Qissa and prepare to have your mind blown.

(The writer was recently in Mumbai on invitation from the Mumbai Film Festival, a Reliance initiative, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, supported by the Government of Maharashtra)