Remembering Irrfan: The Song of Scorpions Director Anup Singh Looks Back

Singh worked with Irrfan on Qissa and The Song of Scorpions, which is the actor’s last theatrical release
Remembering Irrfan: The Song of Scorpions Director Anup Singh Looks Back

It’s taken a long time for director Anup Singh to bring The Song of Scorpions to India. Starring Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani and Hindi film legends Waheeda Rehman and Irrfan, this fable-like film unfolds against the backdrop of Rajasthan’s magnificent deserts. According to an ancient myth, a scorpion sting has only one cure – a song sung by a scorpion singer. But what happens when the scorpion singer is the one who is struck by venom of a different kind? Director Anup Singh said the seed of The Song of Scorpions lay in the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder (popularly known as the Nirbhaya case). While speaking to Film Companion, he also recalled how Irrfan was eager to see The Song of Scorpions release in India. The legendary actor would be diagnosed with cancer a year after the film premiered in 2017 at the Locarno International Film Festival. The Song of Scorpions ended up being Irrfan’s last theatrical release. “It became really heart-wrenching for me to tell him (Irrfan) every time, ‘Janaab, we still haven't found a distributor in India’,” said Singh, who had previously worked with Irrfan on Qissa (2013). Singh also wrote the book Irrfan - Dialogues With the Wind, described as a celebration and an elegy for the actor. 

Here are edited excerpts from the interview: 

You mentioned in your book, Irrfan - Dialogues With the Wind, that you and Irrfan bonded over Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music. What else brought you two closer? 

I think there were numerous things. One, of course, (was) when we understood that performance can become much more expansive when it takes its roots in musicality rather than in drama. That must have been the original basis of our trusting each other. Then, Irrfan's immense curiosity about everything. He could pick up a pebble, and his questions would be, “Why does it have this green or blue? What are the minerals in it? Why and how did it become round?” Then he would ask himself that over all the years that it took the stone to come here and take the shape that it has, how many other hands must have touched it? With this kind of thinking, you can imagine that when he took a piece of dialogue, he had similar questions. It became a wonderful archaeology into the unknown. The whole idea of character then, is not a single line – that this character can act like this because he or she had this backstory. But (that) this character will act like this because suddenly the wind blows and shakes his or her clothes. That sense of freshness changes the quality of emotion. Living in the present, with an openness to everything around you, not simply the story, the dialogue, or your co-actor, creates a performance that is like a river that opens itself into the sea. There is a vastness in that performance that a purely dramatic performance cannot hold. This was, I think, one of Irrfan’s attempts and it is something I believed in absolutely. Our quest to develop and grow this kind of performance is another thing that brought us very close together.

You used to call each other ‘Saab’ and ‘Janaab’. Why was that?

It was very natural for some reason. Maybe because we had such tremendous respect for each other. Also, I can't say that we were friends, the way friends are who have known each other since childhood. There's a kind of informality there. I think Irrfan and my friendship had us looking up at each other. We had known each other for about ten or twelve years, and had great regard for each other's craft and art. It felt strange for me to just call him Irrfan and it felt strange for him to call me Anup. So he called me “Anup Saab”, and I called him “Janaab”. Initially, I started calling him Irrfan Saab, but then it was very funny in our conversation because it would go, “Anup Saab, Irrfan Saab, Anup Saab, Irrfan Saab.” That was a bit too rhyming and we would laugh when that would happen. Therefore, ‘Janaab’ carried all my sense of respect for him.

Golshifteh Farahani in The Song of Scorpions
Golshifteh Farahani in The Song of Scorpions

What was it like directing him?

Generally speaking, actors work from the inside out. They read the script and see the kinds of evocations the script has in terms of their own experiences,  imagination and feelings. With Irrfan, it was to a certain extent, the same. But more and more, from our working together in Qissa and The Song of Scorpions, it was a complete giving up of the self to the space in which we were shooting. Which means opening yourself up to the forces not simply which are inside you, which are very important for every actor, but just as equally to the forces that are around you. Therefore, you will see that Irrfan's performance in Qissa, as well as The Song of Scorpions, is constantly opening perspectives in the frame. It is not only directing its attention on his co-actor or the story but is also opening itself to other stories. For me, it was very important because it allowed me to create a kind of cinema which could have gaps, pauses (and) hesitations.  Irrfan's performance is always full of hesitations and pauses. It gives the audience a chance to become a part of that playing because now they have to wait. And the waiting, even if it is for a moment, creates a desire to see where it goes next. They become  co-actors with you. They start making the film with you while they are watching it. I think this is one of the reasons why Irrfan is so beloved (by) his audience…because he gives them a performance which encourages them to imagine with him, live with him, which I think is very rare in the world of performance.

Is there a difference in how you perceived him when was an actor, and you were his director, as opposed to when he was the subject of your book? 

As a director, he was there in front of me. Every gesture, every lift of the eyebrow, every turn of the body was something that I could see. We could then make a performance together. In writing the book, Irrfan had passed away and what I was left with were memories. Memories are half-truths in many ways because I see him only from my point of view, as how I remember him. I can no longer now question him and say, “Did you actually feel that?” Secondly, memory, even as you remember, you are forgetting. In terms of writing the book, what I was trying to do…just as much as I wanted to capture the memories as I would remember them, I also wanted to capture the spirit of Irrfan as I felt it. When I wrote the first draft of the book and I read it after I had finished, I felt that this was not Irrfan. While all the memories were true, this was not Irrfan because the book was full of grief and the grief was mine. It wasn't Irrfan as he was when we were shooting, or were in a restaurant having a meal, or taking a walk on some hillside. I actually rewrote the book completely, keeping Irrfan's sense of life, his rhythm and joy in every moment of living and his sense of curiosity. That, finally, is how I felt that I had captured in the book not simply my memories, but Irrfan's spirit.

Waheeda Rehman in The Song of Scorpions
Waheeda Rehman in The Song of Scorpions

How was the story of The Song of Scorpions conceived? 

I'm sure you remember the really awful incident in Delhi in 2012 and this young woman on a bus. That particular incident brought deep critical thinking into India. We started wondering as to just what is happening in our country, in our conscience. A year later, I was shooting Qissa (2013). However, that incident never left me. Perhaps it was the tiredness or the subject of Qissa. I kept on dreaming. My dreams were full of images that actually, in many ways, had nothing to do with the 2012 incident. But I had a feeling that there was something happening here that was very much related to that incident. These images were of a wide, immense desert, wind blowing, and I could hear a singing voice. The dreams kept on recurring until I felt I needed to put down the images. And, when I started doing that, suddenly the images became a story. The Song of Scorpions is a very different story from the 2012 incident. There are many things that will be evoked by the film that will remind us of what happened at that time. That was how the story came about — through dreams.

Why did you cast Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani for the role of a Rajasthani woman? 

Golshifteh has been exiled from her country. She lives in the constant pain of separation from her country, Iran, and her family. However, instead of allowing this pain to embitter her, she followed it to the end where it showed her that, finally, we are all more than the identity given to us by the nation in which we are born. Thrown into the larger world, we realize we belong to something even more vast, to the cosmos itself. Golshifteh has taken this insight to fearlessly open herself to the other possibilities within her. This is what makes her the exciting, multi-dimensional actress she is.

Irrfan and I met Golshifteh at an international film festival where Qissa was being screened and we spent the next two days talking non-stop about films and acting. Talking to her, I soon realised that despite the injustice of being exiled from her country, she carried no real bitterness. She saw, instead, how the experience opened so many other possibilities within herself. I saw that Golshifteh’s journey as a person and artist, in many ways, mirrors Nooran, the female protagonist’s journey in The Song of Scorpions. Nooran, too, has to journey into an exile from her home, her village and even her own body and identity. She has to learn to fight her bitterness and her primal instinct to seek vengeance and, finally, learn to celebrate herself. At the end of those two days, I knew Golshifteh was the ideal actress to play Nooran.

How was Qissa’s story conceived? 

The thing with Qissa was that it comes from a very different experience. It comes from my being born and brought up in Africa. One of the reasons that I was born and brought up in Africa was that my grandfather had been affected by the Partition. He was three years old when he came to Africa. This was much before the Partition but already there was a lot happening in the small villages in what is today Pakistan. My family comes from Rawalpindi, which is part of Pakistan now.  One day, there was an attack on his village. His uncle, his mother's brother, put him in a large drum of flour used to make rotis. He was in that pot for hours and hours. Finally, when he came out, what he saw was that the whole village had been massacred.  He was a child, alone, roaming around dead bodies. Finally, he was found by someone and they knew that he had an uncle in Africa, so they wrote to him. The uncle then asked my grandfather to be sent to him. 

The whole story of the Partition was very much in the daily living that we were doing in Africa – the sense of separation, of loss. Later, as I started making films, I would meet relatives whom I had never met before. Amongst them, I met a very old man who told me that there was a time when I had a cousin sister, his daughter. He said that his village had also been attacked. This was during the time of Partition. As it used to happen in those days, many women and girl children threw themselves into the well of the village. This uncle of mine told me that even today, more than 70 years after independence, he still dreamt of his daughter deep there in the well, looking up through the hole at the top, waiting for her father to come and save her. What he told me had a profound impact on me. I couldn't get the image out of my mind. My uncle could tell me the story. He could tell me about his grief. But I really wanted to know what the young girl felt when she threw herself into the well. What she felt in her father's dream - waiting for her father to come and save her. It is from these thoughts and this image of a young girl in a well waiting for her father to come and save her, that Qissa came into being.

Irrfan in The Song of Scorpions
Irrfan in The Song of Scorpions

Why not release The Song of Scorpions earlier? 

I wish that had been in my hands. The film first premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2017. It then took about a year for it to travel to all other festivals internationally. It won numerous awards. The whole of 2018 passed just with the film's journey through festivals, and in 2019 it was released in Europe. Despite the wonderful responses that we got from the festival circuit, we could not find a distributor in India whom we could trust. People in India who saw the film had very nice things to say about it. But at the end, they would say, “It's a bit of an art film and we are not sure how the audience will relate to a film of this kind releasing in the cinemas.”

In 2019, when Irrfan was diagnosed with cancer, it became really heart-wrenching for me to tell him every time, “Janaab, we still haven't found a distributor in India.” Then, came a time in 2020 when he was getting weaker and weaker and he had this tremendous desire that the film be released. Earlier there seemed to be a chance that he would beat his cancer. But now,  all of us and he himself were beginning to accept that he would not escape it. I think it was a week or two before he passed away that Kumar Mangat Pathak of Panorama Studios and Shivv Sharma of 70 MM Talkies got through to us and committed themselves to releasing the film as widely as possible. Looking at the enthusiasm and the immense hard work that they put into the release, I'm very glad that we went with them. 

I wrote about it to Irrfan. By that time, he wasn't talking. But I did send him a message. I don't know whether he ever saw the message. I hope that he did and it gave him some sense of contentment that the film finally would be released. It took a little time after his passing away and the film was finally ready to be released in 2021. A week before the release, we were hit by COVID and again we had to postpone. For the theatres to open, (and) people to start coming back to cinemas, especially for a film of this kind, (it) took a while. But now, as we are coming to the third anniversary of Irrfan's death, we felt that this was the right time to release the film as a homage to this wonderful actor.

Is there any anecdote from the shooting of The Song of Scorpions that you’d like to share?  

Let me share the one that comes to my mind so often. We were shooting in the desert and suddenly out of the blue, we were surrounded by cranes. Later, we came to know that these cranes come every year to Jaisalmer from Mongolia and Siberia. There were about 30 to 50 of these cranes circling around us, and whatever we tried, we could not get rid of them. We tried making all kinds of sounds and banging on metal, but it just didn't work. This went on for 35-45 minutes. Finally, we all just gave up. I was desperate because we were losing the morning light. Then I saw Irrfan carrying a kite and climbing a sand dune. He threw the kite into the air and started flying it. Suddenly, all these birds started circling the kite. Slowly, he started giving it string and it started drifting away in the sky. The birds, intrigued by it, followed it. Irrfan went down the sand dune and kept walking deep and deep into the desert until he was just a small little point. He kept on giving string to the kite and then finally broke the string. The kite then drifted away and the birds also finally went away. 

This tells you something very deep about Irrfan, I think, about his way of dealing with life. He would find the most compassionate way of dealing with everybody. He would try and help everybody. In this case, he was helping the shoot. He had a wonderful instinct for finding the most gentle way of reaching a goal. Sometimes it seemed like he went out of his way. The reason for that was, one, it was a quiet and gentle way of doing it. Two, that there was always something new and creative in his relationship with the world. That image of his standing, like a little point deep in the desert with the kite drifting away, is something that will always stay in my mind.

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