In 2001, Geneva-based, Tanzanian-born director Anup Singh made waves around the film festival circuit with his debut feature film The Name of a River. His exploration of Indian culture and mythology through oneiric cinematography and mythic narratives continued in his sophomore feature Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost in 2013 and marked his first collaboration with Indian film actor Irrfan Khan.
Anup’s latest film The Song of Scorpions premiered in Singapore as a special presentation film at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival last Friday. The Song of Scorpions is based off the legend of a sage singer who has the power to read the melodies in a victim’s pulse and cure them after they’ve been stung by the deadly local scorpions. Golshifteh Farahani plays Nooran, a young woman who has inherited the art of healing through singing from her shaman grandmother (Waheeda Rehman). When she meets handsome came trader Aadam (Irrfan Khan), a strange, bewitching romance ensues, and what appears to be a story of healing turns into one of betrayal and revenge.
In a dialogue session prior, Anup explains how the film came to him in a dream one night, and the choice to film it in the mythic desert landscape a tough but rewarding one, with almost ethereal images of shifting sands forming a deceitful, constantly changing space for the action to take place. There’s an ease with which Anup speaks, completely lucid and intelligent with the way he expresses his ideas, which seethe with evocative imagery as one watches the excitement in his eyes. We spoke to Anup after the enlightening dialogue to find out a little more about his history as a filmmaker and what drives him forward. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: What made you decide to become a filmmaker in the first place?
Anup: I was born and brought up in Tanzania in East Africa. My father was born there and we think of ourselves as East Africans. In 1971, I was 15 and it was a time when all the troubles started in Uganda with Idi Amin. The violence against foreigners in Uganda overflowed into Tanzania and my father face threats each day, eventually forcing us to have to leave the country It was a great shock to my father as he was 40 at the time and he had never left Tanzania before then.
We took a ship to Bombay, and we were so depressed that for 3 days we could only stay in our cabin, experiencing a sense of great loss. But on the third day we heard something happening on the deck of the ship and being the child that i was, I checked it out. I saw they were putting out a screen on the deck and late in the night they started projecting a film, and the three of us sat down with the other passengers and watched it. As a child, looking at the screen somewhere between this beautiful African sky and this vast ocean, I suddenly felt that if i could feel the way I felt right there and then: I felt at home. Through film, I would never feel homeless ever again like I did when i left Tanzania, and that was the moment I realized i wanted to make films.
Bakchormeeboy: What kind of audiences are you hoping your film appeals to?
Anup: This is a question every filmmaker has to face. Cinema is one of the only art forms that deals directly with the concept of time. Every shot has a beginning and end, and characters within the shot are given a limited space and time to make something of their life. They either make or break themselves, their relationships, and/or their relationship with the world. It mirrors us as human beings, that we have a very short lifespan on this earth, and cinema puts time into the foreground, teaching us to find meaning in the short time we have, making a decision if we want to be nurturing or destructive. Everytime we see a film, we realize the importance of time.
I think every audience deep down sees it, and that’s the primal power of cinema, because it tells us something directly, and suggests that we need to live more carefully and reflectively. Usually what happens is that these are frightening questions. no one wants to face death on a daily basis, especially when you’ve paid to see a film. many films try to hide their relationship with time, and they distract. that’s fine, but my films are trying to tell audiences that they have this time, characters have to either live or die within this time and we have to make the same choices. More and more, hopefully audiences will see the kind of film I’m making and that it concerns them directly, speaking to them on a personal and intimate level and teaching them how we should live.
Bakchormeeboy:you grew up as a man of the world, growing up in india, london and now geneva. global perspective?
There’s a filmmaker in India who had a tremendous impact on me. Ritwik Ghatak. He made 8 extraordinary films, and today he’s considered one of the most celebrated indian filmmakers in the world. in his films, he always asked the same qn again and again: his films were about refugees, and he asked ‘who amongst us isn’t a refugee?’. if you think about it we are all refugees on this earth, and we choose to ignore that fact. this questionw as very improtant, even when we say we’re native, this is our land. bt the truth is we are all refugees, you are going to go. and once you realize that even the most rooted of things are refugees, temporal, then perhaps it doesn’t matter where you are born, where you go or where you root yourself. you are constantly belonging not to the world but rhe cosmos. in that sense you’re responsible for where you are. we take a lot from the world, and as a refugee, you learn to give back with respoct, becaus ryou undersatnd what it means to receive and appreciate that much more. you learn to nurture, you learn to create, very different from what some of the patriots are doing in this world dtoay who beleive the land belongs to them, covering it with borders and they kill and destroy to affirm a single identity.
Bakchormeeboy: What are the biggest challenges and struggles you face as a filmmaker?
Anup: Making my last film Qissa took me 12 years. One of the challenges was actually finding the right producers for it. When i wrote this script, I had many producers who said they liked it and were ready to make it, but then they told me to change it, cast a certain person, shoot it a certain way or change the language. Filmmakers need to learn to be strong and have a belief in your work not to fall into those kinds of temptations and compromise the integrity of the work. It’s one of the toughest things in our world for any artist, and it’s easy to give up and compromise. If we have a revelation, then we need to be responsible to that revelation and we can’t just sell out; we have to keep that idea and revelation alive without contaminating it and fight for what we believe in.
Bakchormeeboy: All of your films thus far have been set in and discuss Indian people and culture. Would you consider making alternative films set elsewhere about other people?
Anup: I’m probably going to do a French film set in Paris as well as a film in Africa and in Canada, and my aims for those are very different from the films i’ve made so far. I think my imagination has gone in a certain direction up to The Song of Scorpions, and my next film will act as the final part to a trilogy with Irrfan that will hopefully resolve the many things we’ve been talking about thus far. Doing that will hopefully free me to do and explore other things.
SGIFF 2017 runs from 23rd November to 3rd December across various cinemas and venues. More information and ticket sales available from their website.