Was cinema a major influence in your early days?
I was born and brought up in Tanzania, which we were forced to leave in 1972. As a child, I travelled to Mumbai on a ship for 15 days. There was a film screening on the deck on the third day. The images of the film left an indelible imprint on my mind. Amidst all the discrimination and despair, it was cinema that gave me the larger sense of the cosmos. Besides, my grandfather told stories of partition and I was horrified hearing accounts of women jumping into the wells to save themselves from being raped. This triggered me to make Qissa.
Why is it called ‘Qissa’?
History is replete with accounts of great journeys, like that of Buddha, Gurunanak and Sufi saints. They are a way of crossing ideologies, of not just knowing multiple ways of living but also assessing them. When we tell a tale, we unconsciously traverse several boundaries. My film attempts to do the same by telling a tale, a qissa. Women are an important part of the Punjabi oral tradition. The tales of the Sufi tradition in India are sung within a female persona unlike those of the Middle East. Even though the storytelling is usually done by men, it is not controlled by them. There is something transcendental about the poetry which makes the story bigger than the teller.
How did you get funds for the project?
12 years ago, when I started on this project, Punjabi cinema was not as dynamic as it is today. Production houses in Mumbai were unwilling to part funds unless the film was made in Hindi and they got to select the cast. Subsequently, NFDC came to the rescue but the money was limited. Luckily the film got a German, French and a Dutch producer.
How should people who haven’t had the experience or memory of partition engage with your film?
Partition is not limited to a particular time or place and it has been experienced in places besides India, such as Africa, Israel, and Palestine. We say we do not have control over the violence of partition. But my film Qissa suggests otherwise. We cause separation within our own families which goes on to reflect what is happening in the country today. We create this violence and practice it on a daily basis. Hence, it is not enough to lament. What we do today is what makes history.