Irrfan Khan, Golshifteh Farahani and Anup Singh on 'The Song of Scorpions' in Locarno

08/12/2017 09:00 am ET
Golshifteh Farahani in Anup Singh’s ‘The Song of Scorpions’
Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
Golshifteh Farahani in Anup Singh’s ‘The Song of Scorpions’

What do you do with the poison you receive daily from this world, coming to us in the form of tragic news, pathologically aggressive fellow humans and catastrophes developing all around us? Filmmaker Anup Singh, whose magical, second feature ‘The Song of Scorpions’ premiered on the Piazza Grande in Locarno, offers another question — in answer to my query:

Do we want to kill the world which is already dying or do we want to find a more creative way of living on this earth, like with a song? — Anup Singh

There has been much discussion in the art world about whether an artist should explain his work, or whether a film, a piece of visual art or music composition should stand on its own merit, awaiting for the audience to draw their own conclusions. Cinema is a visual and narrative medium, combining art, the written word and music all at once, thus probably the most able to stand alone without any explanation. And yet, after watching ‘The Song of Scorpions’ I craved to discuss more with the film’s writer-director Singh, as well as discover the nuances of its protagonists — the beautiful, moving and powerfully vulnerable Golshifteh Farahani and Irrfan Khan, whose charisma defies the downfalls of his character and whose magnificent performance allows us to buy wholeheartedly that he is worthy of the film’s ending.

After catching up with all three, on a perfect afternoon, I’m left yearning to watch ‘The Song of Scorpions’ once again, to uncover more within this mysterious folk tale and let the beauty of its images wash over me — the perfect antidote to the grounded, poisoned ugliness of our imperfect world. Moments like these are when I truly love my job!

The story of ‘The Song of Scorpions’ is crafted like a modern-day fairy tale, in the vein of those written by the Brothers Grimm. Nothing is quite what it seems, light and darkness are constantly at odds, the good guys aren’t so perfect after all, and then we, the audience, are left to wonder if what we witnessed is real. I love a film that doesn’t provide me with answers, only more questions, and Singh’s latest oeuvre definitely does that. It also managed to infuse its stunning visuals — the Rajasthani desert, Farahani’s undeniable beauty and Khan’s elegant presence and haunting voice — into my daily life. I can’t help discovering new magic about it as I go on performing my daily tasks, the film never far from my thoughts.

Following are the highlights of my interviews with Golshifteh Farahani, Irrfan Khan and Anup Singh. I hope reading them will inspire in you the desire to watch ‘The Song of Scorpions’ because its complex philosophical questions, and the personal answers you will derive from the film, may just end up changing your life.

After ‘Qissa’ you once again fill your film with magic. So, Anup, do you personally believe in magic?

Anup Singh: I think the sheer fact that we are born is magic. Of course we can go into the biology of it but I say “why me?” Why this very specific thing, my spirit here, this body and my relation to the world. I could have been just a little different and I would have been a different person.

Golshifteh, your character is at once grounded in tradition and her personal tragedy, but also perhaps a mythical creature. What is your take on that statement?

Golshifteh Farahani: Of course the movie, how it comes out, is very different from how it is written. For me it’s clear, what is happening and what will happen. But of course when the film is finished, the things which the spectators they get, that’s the reality. Everyone is allowed to have their own interpretation of what the story was. That’s the beauty of cinema. Last night we were talking to different people in the audience and they all had different ideas of what happened in the end. But for all of them it’s something beautiful. Writing things is different, and when you describe them, it’s cinema.

Irrfan Khan in a still from ‘The Song of Scorpions’
Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
Irrfan Khan in a still from ‘The Song of Scorpions’

Irrfan, how do you play a character like Aadam, who is so humanly imperfect you could almost call him “bad”?

Irrfan Khan: It was very tough for me to play that aspect of him, and I kept wondering about it, “why does he have to do that?” Sometimes what happens with Anup’s films, you leave it to the end, and let the meaning emerge. I still remember while we were doing ‘Qissa’, one of the actresses after shooting at night, she was in a panic. She asked me, “can you tell me what that scene means?” And I told her, don’t try and understand the meaning otherwise you’ll start acting the meaning. I said — just do the act and let the meaning emerge from that.

Also because Anup’s films have a degree of magic that you must throw yourself into wholeheartedly to truly enjoy the story.

Khan: Yeah, and ‘Qissa’ was unique in a way because no one uses abstract so boldly. The audience gets unsettled with that kind of abstraction because you don’t see it often in a story, or in films especially.

What I also find in Anup’s stories which I relate to, it’s like my life’s obsession, the incompleteness of human beings. Once you are created as a human being, you are separated from the soul. Sometimes that feeling is very strong inside me, and that’s what makes you seek what you are seeking all the time.

Anup Singh at the photocall for ‘The Song of Scorpions’
Photo: Locarno Film Festival by Sailas Vanetti
Anup Singh at the photocall for ‘The Song of Scorpions’

Anup, how did you come up with this story, what was the seed of the idea?

Singh: The seed of the idea really was dread, more and more. Given some of the stories I was hearing coming from India about the attacks on women there — and really brutal and ruthless attacks. As soon as I read one story, I felt I’d been poisoned for life. I just couldn’t believe the horror. However at that time I was shooting ‘Qissa’ and in many ways I repressed my feelings. Then ‘Qissa” came to completion and that was Christmas eve, a coincidence my wife and I often laugh about, and I had been exhausted. ‘Qissa’ took twelve years and I was at the end of that, so I think that exhaustion allowed me just to open myself to what I’d been repressing for a very long time. That night, I had a dream, a nightmare if you like which came almost as an expression of all the outrage, all the anxiety and the anger of what I’d been reading about. It was in the dream that I saw almost all the images that finally now are in the film. There was a burning desert, there was a shawl, there was a song and all that brightness, there was a man, there was a woman and I awoke almost breathless — I knew there was something. I awoke and went to my office and without thinking about it, I started writing. Given the kind of images which were in my dream, I was almost not trying or thinking about it, the story itself formulated like a sort of folk tale.

The very sense of a song that can heal.

Golshifteh, you speak this really lovely Rajasthani Hindi in the film, is that you?

Farahani: Yes. I worked for six months before the shooting. It’s a difficult language because they have very different syllables — they have four “T” sounds and nasal stuff and all that. But because I am good with music, I managed. It was very important for all of us that it would be very well done, because they were saying when actresses or actors who are not Indian talk in a bad accent, everyone whistles and laughs in the cinema. That was my nightmare.

Why did you decide to cast Golshifteh in the role of Nooran?

Singh: I could give you many reasons but I’ll give you the one that makes sense to me today. I started looking for the location of the film much before I thought who actually would play Nooran. At that time I was looking at many young Indian actresses and one day I was quite deep in the desert. It was early morning and I was high up on a dune and I saw a young deer. It must have been about two weeks old only and was still finding its feet, sort of prancing and leaping around. And suddenly, at one point this joyous creature went still. Completely. And even in that stillness it kept quivering with the life within it. All that energy held up. It was like it was listening to the universe around it, familiarizing itself to this world it had come into. Then a moment later it was bounding again and you could see that this leap could take it into the sky.

I felt that this was familiar, I had seen this somewhere and then I remembered that it was Golshifteh Farahani who had this kind of energy. When I saw this deer in the desert I knew immediately everything about Golshifteh, and the kind of energy that she brings into this world, and then when she goes still… She’s never still. There is always something boiling inside her, there is a flame.

Were you afraid of playing this role Golshifteh? Was it a challenge for you?

Farahani: Yes, it was a challenge, it was one of the greatest challenges because we were going through a washing machine of sensations and feelings and it was very strong for all of us. All the women working on this project something was happening to all of us. And of course the barrier of language was giving me a lot of stress on top of acting, you need to know some syllables by heart that you don’t even understand, learning those songs, sentence after sentence and also learning your partner’s lines and see what he is saying without even understanding. It was very very difficult and a tremendous amount of stress on me that hit my body, and I had serious health issues at the end of shooting. I think it was the whole package, stress and heat, the desert, food...

Were you staying in Jaisalmer, in the desert?

Farahani: Yes, every day we were driving an hour each way and sometimes two hours, it was very very intense and the environment there is very intense, we would start the day with zero degrees, going up to 35 C and at night coming back to zero. It was like we were living extremes of everything, even extreme sensations, the extreme story, extreme revenge, extreme love, extreme anger, extreme sadness, extreme trauma. That led to a terrible health issue for me.

Anup, how do you write these stories, so human, which never bombard us with violence, even if your themes are very strong?

Singh: I think there is enough violence around. I said this in the Piazza Grande last night, we are surrounded by violence in our world. We are breathing it, with every breath we are breathing in some kind of pollution, some kind of violence. It’s worth thinking, what are we breathing out? Do we want to breathe out the same violence, or do we want to breathe out, perhaps, a song. And I think that is the critical decision each and every one of us has to make in our world today.

So violence is humanity scorpion’s poison?

Singh: Indeed.

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