‘Irrfan didn’t want to work with fixed ideas, wanted to work with experience’

- May 16, 2023
| By : Tanisha Saxena |

Director of Irrfan Khan’s last movie, The Song of Scorpions, Anup Singh reveals the inspiration behind the movie and how the late actor was always curious to know more

PROTAGONISTS: Irrfan Khan (left) and Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani. The late Indian actor couldn’t witness the release of the film, 'The Song of Scorpions'

Irrfan Khan’s ‘The Song of Scorpions’ released in the theatres on April 28. The film is shot in breath-taking landscapes and has a haunting soundtrack distributed by Panorama Music.

The film is written and directed by Anup Singh, who made the critically acclaimed Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost with Irrfan earlier. On the late actor’s third death anniversary, this film aims to bring a healing touch to Irrfan’s family and his fans.
The late actor plays a camel trader in this twisted love story of revenge. Golshifteh Farahani plays Nooran, a fiercely independent tribal woman, who is learning the ancient art of scorpion song from her grandmother, Zubeida, played by Waheeda Rehman. According to local legend, the only cure for sure death after a scorpion sting is the song of scorpions.

Patriot spoke to the filmmaker Anup Singh. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. It took a while for the film to release in India. How do you look at the wait?

A: Initially, it was fine to be philosophical about it. To be patient and hope. Irrfan even told me that every film has its kismet (fate). When the time is right, the film will find a way to its audience, he’d say. But, in 2019, when Irrfan was diagnosed with cancer, the wait became agonising. It was tough to tell him every time we spoke that we had still not found a distributor for The Song of Scorpions in India. The sadness in his voice would twist my soul.

In 2020, a week or two before he passed away, we finally heard from Shiva Sharma of 70mm Talkies and Kumar Mangat Pathak of Panorama Studios. They said they were committed to releasing the film in India as it deserved to be. The way they spoke about their ambitions for the film and their love and respect for Irrfan convinced us that they were the ideal distributors for the film. By that time, however, Irrfan was too weak to talk on the phone. I did send him a message that we had finally found a distributor for India, but I don’t know if he ever saw it. I hope it reached him and brought him contentment in his last moments.

We were no longer ready to wait after his death. The release of the film became a mission for all of us. We felt we had to share and celebrate this last performance by one of India’s great actors with his Indian audience who loved and missed him passionately.

Poster of the film ‘The Song of Scorpions’

It was ready for release in 2021. But a week before the film’s release, the world was hit by the Covid crisis and we had to postpone the release again. Now that the theatres have opened again and audiences are returning to cinema and it is Irrfan’ s third death anniversary, we felt that it is now or never. I cannot thank the distributors of the film enough for their dedication and hard work for making the release possible. Our biggest hope is that the people, who love Irrfan, watch this actor’s last performance the way it should be watched: on the big screen. That would be our real homage, tribute to the wonderful human being and actor.

Q. What led to The song of Scorpions?

A: Like so many others, I believe that my spirit was poisoned for life when I heard about the rape of the young woman in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012. I was haunted by it. About a year later, while still completing Qissa, The Song of Scorpions came to me in a nightmare — from the first image to the last. What I still remember are flickering images of light so bright and dry that it felt like salt in the eyes. Rippling views of burning sand and, strangely, a shawl made of tattered rags in purple, green and blood-red, wavering in the wind. And within all that rage and glare of fire and sand, emerged a singing voice as gentle and calming as the first rain in a desert. I woke up breathless with the whole story of the film racing through my mind. The film is about what poisons us and what could heal us. In the world we live in today, we breathe in a poison of some kind with every breath we take.

The poison of bigoted politics, inhumanity and violence. In response, we can either choose to breathe out into the universe the poison we take within us or we can choose to breathe out a song. That’s our critical choice today — to breathe back into our world the poison or the song. In the film, I’m trying to understand what is the poison that chokes us and why, and what might be the forces that inspire us to sing. Thus, the title — The Song of Scorpions.

Q. You have worked with Irfan before The Song of Scorpions as well and you mentioned in one of your interviews that you wanted Irfan because he alone can play the part authentically. What was your vision of Aadam?

A: Aadam, in many ways, is like the lover from our culture’s great love-legends. He is in ecstasy when he finds a woman that awakens his passion and his desire to live life in the utter joy of love. But he is a modern lover. A lover of our violent times. When he feels that the woman he has given his heart to is not ready to reciprocate with love, he finds a treacherous way to defile her in vengeance. He wants her to suffer as much as he does. What he does not see is that his love was always reciprocated.

Only he never learned to see it earlier. Now, when he can finally live the life that he desired, he finds himself haunted by his treachery. Love, slowly, teaches him about himself. It shows him not only the poison that he carries within him, but it shows him that love’s song can heal the poison. He finally becomes the man of love that he believed himself to be. He is now ready to die for his love. But, even that, he learns has a selfishness hidden within it. Love teaches him to let the other free herself from him. It teaches him that even if his beloved forgives him, he will never be able to forgive himself. It is then that he realises what a true lover is.

Q. This film is very personal to the fans of Irrfan. How was it like working with him?

A: While shooting for Qissa, I was working on a movement in front of the camera for the actors one day. I was humming a melody under my breath to help me choreograph the movement. I did not realise that Irrfan was standing beside the camera watching and listening to me. Suddenly, he started singing the melody that I was humming. Still singing, he took his position before the camera and worked through the movement. After we had taken the shot, both of us were elated by what we had achieved. He looked at me, grinning, “I want you to give me a melody for every shot after this. It changes how I feel, how I move!”

That was our first real meeting as actor and director. That’s the moment we began to understand and trust each other – through music!

What I admired about Irrfan from the moment I met him was his sense of curiosity about everything. He never believed that he had found the truth about anything. Despite being a master of the acting craft, he always felt he did not know enough. Despite being a deeply reflective person, he did not believe he really knew who Irrfan Khan was. With everything in his life and work, he was always seeking to find more. No answer was enough. If he found that a particular gesture carried the necessary emotion for a character he was playing, he would then experiment with it even more to see that if it opened out to an even larger emotional depth.

This curiosity in him can be seen in the uncertainty he carries in his best performances. The ability to be uncertain, I think, was almost an ethical need for him. In a world where we try and fix people in boxes, and quickly conceptualise everything, the experience of people is lost. We say this is a Sardar, this is a Maharashtrian, this is a Hindu, this is a Parsi, and then we make up fixed ideas about them. Irrfan never wanted to work with fixed ideas, he wanted to work with experience. He wanted to experience the other, in the same way he wanted to experience himself in different encounters. So, I think he developed uncertainty in himself as a way of creating a pause, a space for the other, the world, to speak to him. His best performances are full of such pauses, hesitations. Each pause puts us, his audience, into waiting. This is how he activates our imagination. What might happen next? He had found this beautiful way of making us find new tones, emotions, feelings with him, rather than him just showing them to us.

Q. Your views on cancel culture in India

A: No growth, no creative act is possible without dialogue. By denying dialogue with each other, we are denying our own growth.

Actor Shashank Arora played the role of Munna, the best friend of the male protagonist, in the film. Excerpts from an interview with him.

Q. How did you came on board with the film?

A: I got a call from Anup Singh and he asked me to do a screen test for the part of Munna. He told me about the idea and entire concept. I was very interested in the folk-tale. The film is set in Jaisalmer’s Thar desert and features Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani, Irrfan Khan, Waheeda Rehman and Tillotama Shome. There was no reason to not wanting to be a part of the film.

Q. Tell us a bit about your character?

A: Munna is a nomad. He is a Banjara. He roams around doing small jobs in the desert. The environment, the conditions are very harsh. Munna is Aadam’s (played by Irrfan Khan) best friend and colleague. Aadam is a camel trader and Munna loves him dearly.

Q. How was a day like on the sets?

A: Oh, it was incredible! Irrfan Khan was a force to be reckoned with. He was not only a great actor but a wonderful person. His craft was unique and the way he carried himself in the world of cinema continues to inspire millions. We ate gulkand ka halwa together in the desert. He was a very gentle and kind-hearted soul and while working he made sure that his co-actors were comfortable. He was a gem.

Q. Your body of work is testimony to your versatility as an actor. What do you look for in a script?

A: When I read a script, I look for a moving story which touches my heart. Also, the film-makers’ idea and passion with which the story has been written, should definitely look beyond fame and money. A film-maker is a storyteller and I look for only story-tellers. I believe then only one can do justice to the given part or character.