A folk tale born out of a nightmare: Anup Singh on The Song of Scorpions
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“No doctor is as beautiful as she is; and there is no doctor that sings for you either,” says Aadam (Irrfan Khan), a camel trader in Anup Singh’s new film The Song of Scorpions. Aadam has seen Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani) draw out poison from a person bitten by a scorpion by singing a haunting melody. And he is unable to come out of the spell cast by the experience.
In reality, women such as Nooran don’t exist; the community of scorpion singers in the Thar Desert is a strictly patriarchal one which doesn’t allow women healers to practise their art outside their family. But Singh has never been interested in strict realism. In his first feature film, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, a Sikh patriarch raises his girl child as a boy, eventually marrying her off to a woman. His ghost haunts her even after his death. Like Qissa, The Song of Scorpions has the quality of a tragic folk tale, which draws from the indigenous form of storytelling and gives a strong critique on the tradition of patriarchy and violence.
Singh’s film had its India premiere at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival and is expected to release in theatres in early 2018. After the screening, the filmmaker spoke to us about how the film was born out of a nightmarish vision, working with Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani and the allure of folk tales.
Qissa was your way of exorcising memories of your grandfather. What was the starting point for The Song of Scorpions?
In the case of The Song of Scorpions, the personal was also, if you like, the national. When that incident in the bus happened in Delhi in 2012, it poisoned me, like many of us, for life. We, of course, knew of the atrocities against women since time immemorial but it was a bit abstract and a bit distant. 2012 made us feel what a group of human beings can do to another in a very concrete and palpable way.
It was toward the end of shooting Qissa that one night I went to bed and a series of disarranged images started bubbling in my head. It was a kind of burning desert which, as it burnt, left behind an ash, which became an ancient shawl. It was from the shawl that I could hear a singing. I could see a woman in the distance and a man half-buried in sand. I started writing almost immediately. When I started unfolding these images, they opened in the shape of almost a folk tale rather than a clear-cut logical narrative. I let that be. I didn’t try very hard to make them logically cohesive.
Qissa had the feeling of a folk tale as well. What attracts you to this format?
I have lived in Africa, India and the UK. Being a stranger in so many lands, it was easier for me to find myself in things like music, stories and painterly traditions rather than the sociocultural milieu. If you look at any folk tale in the world, you will find it has connections with some other parts of the world. One sees cinema going towards an established idea of realism and a narrative binding that leads you like a formula from the beginning to the end—that isn’t my experience of life.
What are the texts you would cite as your guiding influences?
The Mahabharata, the Vedas, 1001 Nights, Jataka Tales. Kalidas’s idea of Shakuntala is very important to me. He is one of the first early major Indian writers who separated the sense of the woman as being a manifestation of nature. He wrote about women who weren’t Mother Earth or a symbol of the nation. They were independent and could therefore interact, question and make their own choices.
In an interview, Golshifteh Farahani called you one of the “rare male directors who understands the deep corners of the structures of women’s minds”.
I don’t think I can explain it but perhaps it is the liquidity of nature in Africa (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) where I grew up or the sea in Mumbai where I lived for many years later in my life. I think the human body is not a defined and fixed entity. We carry aspects of both masculine and feminine within the body. There are many ‘us’. We are different with our parents, our beloved, in the office, on the streets. I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate it or deny it.
I think I am a woman myself in terms of flux. There is certain idea of machismo and warrior masculinity which tries to confine the body and spirit to predetermined modes. As a filmmaker, it is our duty to challenge these kinds of conventions used to create power structures.
What prompted you to cast Farahani?
She came as a gift, really. I never thought of her. I was doing auditions in India. Two things led to it. Once I was deep in the desert early one morning when I saw a young doe. It was stumbling and staggering and then stopped. Even when it was completely still, you could see life quivering within and then it was gone. I knew immediately that is the kind of quality I am looking for in Nooran.
Also, there is a certain kind of face found in the desert, sculpted by the wind and sand. Irrfan and I were at the Abu Dhabi film festival for Qissa and Golshifteh came to the screening by chance. She came up to us and told us she loved the film. We spent two days with her just talking about acting. She started speaking about her exile from Iran, the pain of separation from her country and family. Even though there was anger, I never felt any bitterness. The more she spoke about it, the more it felt like Nooran, who is someone who suddenly finds herself in a similar place. When she left, Irrfan and I were walking and he said, “Don’t you think she is our Nooran?”
There are scenes in the film in which she has a strong accent. Are you planning to re-dub her portions?
There is a bit of an accent. It’s there in certain portions—we were working under some time limits. But we are looking at solving that problem before the film’s release. We don’t want someone else to dub for her, I’m sure Golshifteh will manage.