Irrfan on the set of The Song of Scorpions.
The story of The Song of Scorpions emerged from flares and flickers of images in disturbing dreams. This was in 2013 and it had been a year since we had all heard of the horrific incident on the bus in Delhi. However, that moment in our history, I believe, had shifted something in our national spirit and deep in the conscience of all of us. And itcontinued to haunt me.
The dreams made me so uneasy that I decided to try and exorcise the images out of me by writing them down. In the process of putting them on paper, they began to unlock within them a story that I understood demanded to be made immediately. It was a tale of our time. The script wrote itself very quickly and when I took it to Irrfan and narrated it to him, he said, “You always bring me roles that I don’t want to do. But these are exactly the kind of roles I need to do!” We decided that The Song of Scorpions would be our next film together. The next step was to go on a quest for the rest of the cast. And it was going to be a quest because the spirit of the tale demanded actors who would be ready to give up the comfort of all the craft that they had learned till now and abandon themselves to the life and death demands of the story and where it needed to unfold: deep in the sometimes burning and sometimes freezing Thar desert of Rajasthan.
The film’s tale is of twisted love, revenge and the redemptive power of a song. Nooran (Golshifteh farahani), carefree and defiantly independent, is a tribal woman learning the ancient art of healing from her grandmother (Waheeda Rehman), a revered scorpion-singer. When Aadam (Irrfan), a camel trader in the Rajasthan desert, hears her sing, he fallsdesperately in love. But even before they can get to know each other better, Nooran is poisoned by a treachery that sets her on a perilous journey to avenge herself and find her song.
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, ignorance, resentment and violent reprisals. In response, we can choose to breathe back out into the universe the poison we take withinus or we can choose to breathe out a song. That’s our critical choice today: to breathe back into our world poison or a song.
Since this was the vital spirit of the film, I had a tremendous desire to cast the one woman in Hindi cinema, who, I believe, incarnates this spirit with grace and unassuming dignity - Waheeda Rehman. She had already seen Qissa and had told me how it moved her. So, despite the fact that I knew she did not wantto act any more and had been saying ‘No’ to all offers for almost eight years, I went to see her.
When she asked me to tell her about the role, I told her honestly that it was a very small role, but it carried the the hidden music of the film. “It’s the role of a woman,” I said to her, “who, when she sings, oases and flowers rise and bloom in the desert.” Immediately, a sparkle started to play in her eyes. “She sings? Could I sing the songs in my voice?” That, of course, was my secret desire! In The Song of Scorpions, then, Waheeda Rehman sings a song in a film in her own voice for the first time in her career.
We, then, started auditions in Mumbai, Delhi and in many of the cities of Rajasthan,seeking our Nooran, the woman protagonist of The Song of Scorpions. And, actually, I was going to cast a forceful young actress in Mumbai, but just then Irrfan and I were invited to an international film festival where Qissa was being screened.
At the festival, after the screening of the film and our Q&A session, we were coming down the stairs of the podium when we saw a gorgeous woman walking through the crowdtowards us. She came up to us and said, “Coffee?”
Irrfan & Golshifteh in The Song of Scorpions.
Of course, we were not going to say “No” to Golshifteh Farahani! The next two days,while we were still at the festival, we spent every moment we could together. We would meet at breakfast and then spend the whole day chatting about films and acting and our lives. She told us about being exiled from Iran, her country, and the pain of not being able to return to her people and her family. However, what struck both Irrfan and me was her capacity to talk about her exile without any bitterness or resentment. Instead, she sawthat her exile had opened so many other possibilities within herself.
I saw that Golshifteh’s journey as a person and artist, in many ways, mirrored that ofNooran, 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.
Irrfan & Golshifteh resting in between the shots on the set of The Song of scorpions.
There was a small role, just two scenes, of a prostitute in the film and I knew the role was not worthy of the tremendous talent of Tillotama Shome. But, after Qissa, neither she nor I could imagine me doing a film without her. I told her about the role and how brief it would be in the film, but she said that as long as she was working with Irrfan and me, that was fine with her, and she accepted immediately.
Next, was the crucial character of ‘Munna’. He was to play Irrfan’s friend, who would do anything for him because of his hidden desire for his friend. We auditioned actors in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, but were not happy with any of the countless actors during these auditions. And, then, Shashank Arora agreed to audition too. That took me by surprise as he had just played the lead role in the striking film, ‘Titli’.
Shashank arrived at the audition looking like he had just woken up on some street inMumbai, in grubby clothes, wild hair, unwashed! And, then, in the next hour of audition, I saw what makes for a spectacular actor. As soon as he came in and sat down on the floor, his splayed out, spread posture immediately evoked the desert landscape. Only in the vast expanse of sand could a person lie down with such impudent belonging to the terrain and the sky overhead. From there, he began to move like a demon locked in chains and, then, like a child who has found a pool of water to play in, and, finally, like a snake or a scorpion, a true sovereign of the desert, unaware of any human moral code.
It was a scintillating audition. As an actor, Shashank exhilarated me with the range of histalent. So, we now had the film’s ‘Munna’ too!
Shashank’s audition had reminded me how important it was that an actor convince us that he or she belongs to the terrain and has not just walked out of the vanity van for the shot. I do believe that every terrain impels certain tones and rhythms to how we move and speak. For example, a river is bound to encourage sibilance in the voice just as acamel’s rhythm effects the movements of desert inhabitants.
For me, drama rises, stands against and slips back into the terrain. I spend months living in the terrain where I plan to make my next film. And everywhere I have been, I have seen how language as well as gesture and the weight of an emotion are deeply connected to the terrain. My attempt in my films has always been to study this ecology. To see how it imprisons as well as frees us.
And that was one of the many joys of working with Irrfan. The Thar desert became a space for him of investigation, a space to explore and study. When we came to any location in thedesert, he would quickly disappear. He needed to go on his own reccie. He would go and look at the sparse growth of plants. He would sit down wherever he was supposed to perform. His hands would be on the ground, he would feel the earth. If there was a tree, he would go and lean against it almost as though he was listening to it. If there was awall, he would sit down against the wall and lean his spine against it. He didn’t need a chair or an umbrella. He could lie down in the middle of a desert.
I would often look around, wondering where has Irrfan disappeared? I could not see him even when he was right before me because he was so much at ease in nature that in a desert he become the desert. He was in repose there as any creature, say, a camel, would be.
And, then, when he came before the camera, it seemed like the landscape, its contours,its rhythms had walked into the frame with him. His performance became always more than a straightforward playing of a drama. It was setting into vibration the numerous stories that were surrounding him in the landscape. And, in turn, the lines, the forces of the landscape gave him their rhythms.
I am convinced that this relationship that he consciously created with his environment is one of the vital elements that made him the formidable actor he was.
That was the thing about him — that he really wanted to make himself at home everywhere and with everybody. And he knew that cinema was his only real home.
Director of The Song of scorpions, Anup Singh, explaining a scene to Irrfan.