Given that Qissa is a character driven story, its saving grace naturally would be the acting. Anup Singh’s casting for this film is absolutely dynamite. The star of course, is not who you think… Tillotama Shome’s performance as Kanwar eclipses even that of Irrfan Khan’s Umber. Shome’s smiles, slight gestures, shyness, and anger all culminate into a purely natural act which exudes all the awkwardness, and discomforting tragedy of Kanwar’s life.
Perhaps the shining moment of Singh’s film is in Kanwar’s envisioning of her father, bringing back every sense of confusion over her own identity as a person and as the son that her father never had. Such a moment does two things; it confronts what Kanwar had been pushing away through his entire adulthood, which is that he is anatomically a woman, and it also gives Umber a chance of redemption, a chance for us to see him aside from a totalitarian patriarch whose obsession ruins his family. He is a flawed person, a father who struggled to come to grips with the reality that he is not “blessed” as he would call the act of finally having a son. This is the point in the film where Anup Singh makes his mark… the problem does not lie in Umber Singh’s need for a son, the problem lies in society’s need for a son. In religious doctrine, which dictates sons as warriors and protectors, but which can be turned about face and duped simply by raising a girl as a boy. Biologically perhaps it would never be so, but mentally, of heart, towards the end of the film, can we doubt that Kanwar would pass as a leader? If society was so easily convinced that Umber Singh honestly had a son, would this not be because of the way Kanwar behaved rather than how he looked?
Women can be strong too, would be the easy takeaway from Anup Singh’s Qissa, but much like our perception of “machoism” in film, how the ‘bravest’ women are automatically boiled down to being violent and carrying weapons (Phoolan Devi, Sarah Connor, O-Ren-Ichi-ii, Ellen Ripley, etc.), our perception that Kanwar is any more of a strong woman than Neeli (a great performance by Rasika Duggal) just because Kanwar holds the gun and talks brash, while Neeli giggles and shows emotion is simply a finger pointed in our direction. We are accustomed to thinking this way, and its as much a cinematic problem as it is a real world problem. For India, Qissa is a film which addresses this in a humane way, rich with texture, an engrossing story, and great acting.