Theme of healing emerges strongly in The Song of Scorpions: Anup Singh

Filmmaker Anup Singh’s third feature film, The Song of Scorpions, starring Irrfan, Golshifteh Farahani, and Waheeda Rahman in lead roles, had its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival 2017 and was screened to a packed house at the MAMI Film Festival in Mumbai in 2017. Excerpts of an email interview with the filmmaker:

1 . What made you decide to become a filmmaker in the first place?

AS: I was born in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, in East Africa. We lived very close to the small harbour and I would watch huge ships float past and disappear into the horizon. My school was right next to Pesident Nyerere’s estate. Just separated by a metal fence. Deer and ostriches and giraffes and zebras were left to wander wild on the estate, but there were Masai caretakers, in their long, red cloaks and carrying spears. 

Often we would meet the Masai at the metal fence and they would introduce us to a newly-born zebra, or show us an ostrich just hatched from its egg. There are so many stories I heard from them about their life in the African jungle, folk-tales about animals and legends about their gods.

That’s the landscape and school I come from.

In the early 1970s, with the disturbances in Idi Amin’s Uganda, there was some run-over effect in Tanzania as well and my family was forced to leave Africa to India and then to Europe. 

For the many years my family made Mumbai their home and I graduated from the Mumbai University with a double MA, in English Literature and Philosophy. Already I was writing for various newspapers and magazines and I also had my own theatre group. Writing and theatre pointed me towards cinema and I joined FTII in 1983 and graduated from there in 1986 with my diploma film, called Lasya, The Gentle Dance, winning the main prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival, Germany and then being invited to festivals all over the world.

My parents, in the meantime, had moved on to London. After FTII, I worked for many years as assistant director, script writer, and set designer with India’s two great avant-garde filmmakers, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul.

In the late eighties when I tried to raise money for my own film, I could find support only in the UK, from the British Film Institute. But, soon, NFDC, India, decided to support my film, too, and that’s how I made my first film, Ekti Nadir Naam. In the meantime, I had been teaching cinema at various universities and film schools in the UK, and I got an offer from an arts school in Geneva, Switzerland. That’s how I first went to Geneva and have now been living there for near to 20 years.

2. How do you divide your time between projects here in India and abroad? 

AS: I actually came to the movies very early in life. I was hardly a teenager. When my family had to leave Africa, we travelled by ship from Dar-es-Salaam to Mumbai. We were all almost in a kind of mourning at the thought of leaving Africa and hardly came out of our cabin in the first few days of the trip. But on the third night, a screen was raised on the deck of the ship that we were travelling on. That night a film played bright and loud between the sky above and the sea below. I think the film was Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, or at least I would like to believe it was! And I knew at that moment that as long as I could invoke this experience of cinema, I would never be homeless. Cinema has been my home ever since.

The division of my time between Europe and India has more to do with each project rather than any fixed agenda. All my films as yet have been set in India. While most of my writing and raising of money is done in Europe, I do travel a lot to India for research, to look at locations, to begin the casting process. And, of course, when I’m ready to shoot.

A still from The Song of Scorpions.

3. How did you go about casting for your films? How did you zero in on Irrfan for two of your projects? 

AS: I had the untiring effort of Pushpendra Singh, my assistant on both these films. Pushpendra has been an acting teacher at FTII and is now also steadily establishing himself as one of India’s important young filmmakers. Once I had established the look, age, and the quality of performance I was looking for in each of these films, it was Pushpendra who travelled through most of North India looking for actors amongst theatre troupes – he travelled through small towns, villages, big cities, holding workshops and documenting and photographing actors. It is from this research that that I started choosing the possible cast for my films. After that, I would meet all the actors and work with them, sometimes for weeks, before, finally, dropping or casting them.

When I first started writing the script of Qissa, I had Balraj Sahni in mind. For the fierce role of the father in my film, I knew needed an actor who could carry an immense secret hurt within himself even as he did some really horrendous things within his family. I wanted the actor to carry both fragility as well as threat. Since Balraj Sahni was dead many years, it was obvious to me that Irrfan was the only other actor who carried the skill and vulnerability to give me the performance I was looking for.

Initially, Irrfan did not really want to do the film. He was hesitant because he thought the character was too dark. I suggested to him that we watch some recordings of Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. I pointed out to him the agony and almost a kind of violence that we saw in Nusrat Saab’s face and body as he sang. But, finally, the song that emerged from him was fragile and affirmative. Irrfan understood immediately what I was trying to tell him and accepted to do the film.

And, after working on Qissa together, we have achieved a tremendous respect and trust in each other’s imagination and courage to go into unknown regions of performance. It was with joy that I could cast him for The Song of Scorpions too.

4. What is the guiding thought behind choosing the subject of your films? From Qissa to The Song of the Scorpions, how has been your cinematic journey? 

AS: I believe cinema’s the only art that confronts and questions us physically, conceptually, spiritually about how we live within the limits and possibilities of time. Cinema foregrounds time with an urgency that no other art does. Thus it confronts us directly with our mortality and questions us persistently – how in our span of life, the time we each have on this earth, how do we choose to live? This is the primal question that leads me to the various themes that emerge in my films: violence, boundaries, exile, the play of gender.

From my first film, The Name of a River, through Qissa and now The Song of Scorpions, these themes have been dominant. But with The Song of Scorpions, a new theme has emerged to the forefront: the theme of healing.

Given the world of violence we live in, we are breathing in some kind of poison into ourselves at every moment of our life. The critical question not only for me, but for all of us today is: when we breathe out, do we want to breathe out the same poison we have breathed in? Or do we choose, instead, to breathe out a song?

A still from Qissa.

5. What special efforts went into making these films? 

AS: Well, Qissa took 12 years of my life to make. And to do the kind of films I do, everything takes a special effort! From convincing producers, funding agencies, and actors to spending months travelling in the desert looking for the right locations and then finding out that you can’t get permits to shoot in those areas! But, seriously, all the special effort goes in the preparation. Writing and rewriting the script, working for months with the cinematographer trying to understand the light and dark that would carry the themes of the film. Checking the fabrics, colour schemes of the costumes, which is always a delight because the costume designers who worked with me on both Qissa and The Song of Scorpions, Niddhi and Divya Gambhir, are just as finicky and unhappy till every stitch is just the way it should be!

I’ll stop here. As I said, making a film like mine, everything takes a special effort!

6. Please give a rundown on the amount of research, choosing the actors, challenges, major take aways, etc. from your cinematic journey. 

AS: To answer this question would compel me to write a Ph.D thesis! I think I’ve already answered the question about casting and the many challenges. As for the research, the truth is that I’m interested in every aspect that could affect the film. For instance, you could ask me what is the structure and size of a grain of desert sand in Jaisalmer and I could answer that! 

I spent months visiting the community that is the subject of my film. My costume designers travelled for days sometimes to find the right fabric among the women of this community in various parts of Rajasthan. Golshifteh with some of my actors from Mumbai spent a couple of days living in the house of one of the families.

Rakesh Yadav spent months learning the architecture and materials that go into the making of this community’s houses. I spent many days learning the language and calls the camel traders use with their camels. My assistant, Pushpendra Singh, and I travelled vast distances to listen, discuss and record the music of the desert. 

And what we take away from this experience is the inspiration and creativity the vast journeys over hundreds of years from all kinds of countries gifted this region. The caravans that travelled through here, from Iran and Iraq, from Mongolia and China, from Spain and Africa, each journey planted a seed here that has flourished to become music, fabrics, songs and stories. We hope this celebration of plurality is something we’ll be able to bring to our audience through our film.

7. What do you enjoy more? Writing or Directing?  

AS: I enjoy both immensely. The writing for the solitary struggle with myself. The directing for the creative exchange with a diverse group of extraordinary talents.

8. What makes The Song of the Scorpions a must-watch? 

AS: With two of the finest actors in the world, this is a love-story that questions the very basis of love. And yet affirms love as our most creative gift.

9. Any interesting anecdote that you would like to share?  

AS: Waheeda Rehman will not like my mentioning this, but on her last day of shoot, she had a personally chosen gift for every one of the cast and crew. When I say every one, I mean every one! A personal gift for every light boy right up to the director! She had shopped for every item herself in the markets of Jaisalmer. As though that was not enough, she left a generous part of her fee for the film to be distributed equally to the light-boys and spot-boys.

10. The film has received an overwhelming response abroad. How does it feel and does it up the expectation quotient from Indian and other overseas audience?

AS: Mumbai is my home-town. I’m, of course, anxious but also very keen to see how an Indian audience responds to the film.

A still from The Song of Scorpions.

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