Anup Singh's previous film was the Partition-era saga Qissa, and the story revolved around a girl whose father decides to raise her as a boy. At one point, after years of wearing male attire (including a turban), when the girl wears "girl clothes", she says she feels like there are scorpions crawling all over her body. The director's new film carries that metaphor forward. One, there's the title: The Song of Scorpions. But more importantly, there's that constant feeling that the film itself gives you – the feeling of scorpions all over your body. Under the placid surface, your skin crawls, and you never know when the sting will come. I haven't seen Anup's first film, Ekti Nadir Naam, but based on Qissa and The Song of Scorpions, he likes to narrate deceptively simple fables that are really about madnesses and obsessions. By definition, a fable is a simple creation, but Anup Singh clutters things up with queasy psychological complexities.
I mean "clutter" just as a manner of speaking – for this is, like Qissa, a meticulously and gorgeously shot film, with picture-perfect imagery. Pietro Zuercher and Carlotta Holy-Steinemann are the directors of photography, and we get frame after stunning frame. It is hard to go wrong with a story set in Rajasthan, in the desert – but from the first sight of a woman walking across the sand, this is a film you may want to watch on mute just to drink up its visuals. A fluorescent lamp lies at the corner of a frame and turns the brown sand into neon-bluish ash. Irrfan Khan plays a camel trader named Aadam. At one point, he stands with three camels behind him, their browns blending into the browns of the dunes behind – it looks like man and animals are posing for a painting. Later, he plays hide-and-seek with his daughter, and is seen behind a pile of quilts bursting with colour.
This "beauty", if you will, provides a stunning contrast with the ugliness buried in the narrative. Qissa made us think we were in a story about gender identity, but slowly became something more sinister. The Song of Scorpions, at first, makes us think we are in the gentlest of love stories. Aadam is a widower with a little girl (Sara Arjun; looking at her here and in the Ponniyin Selvan films makes us see how long ago this movie was made). Aadam's name in his religion, Islam, refers to the first man on earth. And he looks at Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani) as though she's the only woman on earth. We occasionally step into the outskirts of the desert, with concrete buildings and mobile phones, but the core of the story takes place deep inside an ocean of sand, deep inside the realm of myth. And Nooran is very much a creature from myth, some kind of siren. She is a medicine woman, a healer who heals scorpion stings not just through her medicinal pastes but also through her songs.
Aadam flirts with her. He follows her – or if we move out of myth and into the modern day, we might say that he stalks her. But we sense that he is a good man – because when he hears Nooran sing her song of scorpions, he is moved to tears. Even his sister gives him a conduct certificate: she remarks that he is still so innocent. Aadam wants to marry Nooran. He wants to protect her from the lusty men on bikes that keep calling out to her. (They are outsider-invaders in this mythical territory, in the mythical love Aadam has for Nooran.) But soon, Nooran has a traumatic experience, and says she cannot sing anymore as there's poison inside her. And now, Aadam becomes the healer. He may not have medicines. He may not know the song of scorpions. But what he has is kindness.
Few actors are as good as Irrfan at portraying fundamental decency. We saw that quality in The Namesake. We saw that quality in The Lunchbox. And we see it here. Aadam is care and compassion personified, and Irrfan sells this too-good-to-be-true character with minimal fuss. The portrayal is utterly in sync with this minimalistic movie. Look at him when he decides to let Nooran sleep, after he brings food for her. With no external fuss (say, an eyebrow twitch), he brings out the emotion from inside. And yet, Aadam is no saint. After Nooran leaves her bed, Aadam buries his head in the blankets and inhales the scent she's left behind. In contrast, we have Aadam's friend, played by Shashank Arora. This is a man defined solely by his libido, and he brings about the big shocker of a twist – though again, this reveal is done casually, in the most minimalistic fashion.
Even the actors with shorter screen times register strongly. Waheeda Rehman is lovely as both Nooran's grandmother and as a flashback to her older films from a time Bollywood was called Hindi cinema. If the sight of the actress in the desert reminded me of her singing Tu chanda main chandni in Reshma Aur Shera, the impoverished all-woman household brought to mind scenes from Namkeen. As a character, she adds a layer to the film's title by talking of money as zehar, poison. She says that instead of accepting payment for services, they should sacrifice themselves and save lives. Just like a camel cannot become its truest self unless it wanders in the desert, this tribe of singers must go out there and find their songs from the moon and the stars and the dunes. This is the kind of daftness that transcends "logic" and becomes so evocative in a fable.
If there's a weakness in The Song of Scorpions, it's Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor you may remember from Asghar Farhadi's About Elly. There's something exotic about her looks – and in the whole cast, she comes off as someone playing dress-up. Again, this is not about the actor's ethnicity but about her ability to blend in: the effort shows. But her performance is fine, very controlled, and she holds our hand beautifully through the story's last stretch. Like Qissa, this is a hysterical and melodramatic premise told with such complete conviction and so committed to avoiding big dramatic moments that I bought it completely. I bought the twist. I bought the after-effects. And I bought the hint that obsessive love is also a form of love. Once again, Anup Singh gives us a fabulously flawed character and makes us feel for them, even as our logical self realises that they are not worth these feelings. That's the great manipulative power of art.