By Rahul Desai
Much of The Song of Scorpions – Anup Singh’s Rajasthani-Hindi film that had its world premiere at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival – is shot like a beautiful myth. It features the legend of a ‘scorpion singer’ in the Thar desert, a tribal woman who sings to counter the poison of deadly scorpion bites. An early sequence ends with this fabled figure, Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani), crooning for a man writhing in pain at night. She appears like a priest in search of the right moon-to-star ratio to do the last rites. A bonfire casts flickers of coy light onto the faces of the surrounding villagers – people who had arrived with the solemnity of an impending funeral, but people who are now spellbound by a voice that deafened death with a life-affirming melody. The folkloric vibe is further cemented by the presence of the late Irrfan Khan as Aadam, a camel trader besotted by the scorpion singer; three years after Khan’s passing, this is his final theatrical release in India. The cinematography (by Pietro Zuercher and Carlotta Holy-Steinemann) frames Rajasthan as a shape-shifting fairyland, turning tranquility into a secret language and making the sand dunes resemble contours of a scarred body. In other words, The Song of Scorpions is steeped in the language of literary fancy and fiction. It’s not supposed to feel actual.
Some might even call it the ‘exotic Western gaze’ and ‘poverty porn’. But the sluggish, quasi-arthouse mood is more than embellishment here. While it’s not the easiest to sit through, what it does is lull the viewer into a make-believe world, where every character and frame seem to be on parole from a famous painting. This tone is important – the lulling must happen – because the film ultimately thrives on a dissonance between treatment and theme. Nooran’s fabled existence is, slowly but steadily, pushed into the realms of life and gender brutality. In the beginning, Nooran is very aesthetically ostracized from a community that resents her independence and mystery. Her grandmother, Zubeida (Waheeda Rehman), is a veteran of the craft, and trains Nooran by making her sing to the dunes in the moonlight. Aadam pursues her playfully, even getting thrashed by the locals for being too forceful with his flirting.
But as the film wears on, the fantasy of it all is punctured by pockets of jarring reality. Every now and then, a motorbike or jeep appears to wrench the viewer out of the film’s purported timelessness. It’s like watching a beast rearing its head through the rotting flesh of beauty. The penny drops when, one night, Nooran gets betrayed by the darkness. The illusion is shattered, her grandmother disappears, and Nooran is left to grieve the death of her former self. The fiction consciously succumbs to the whims of fact. She loses her singing voice, and locks herself away from the stigmatic whispers of the village. At her lowest, Aadam reappears and offers to marry her, like a Knight in Rustic Armour. With nothing left to lose or gain – after being reduced to yet another Indian woman who must process obligation as love – Nooran agrees. Aadam, a widower with a daughter, hopes to nurse her back to the magical confines of lore. He hopes to heal her and rediscover the voice that might restore her reputation as a healer. In a way, he is willing the film to remember the folktale it was; only this time, he wants to be the teller.
This form of The Song of Scorpions is the core of a narrative that scrutinizes the notions of the Male Saviour and Eternal Romance. The dichotomy conveys Nooran’s struggle to rebuild her sense of agency. Post marriage, we see her grasping at the bygone fictions of her presence, warming up to her new setting and seeking words for her lost voice. The film, too, starts to soften and glisten again in sync with her emotional resurrection. Once Nooran stumbles upon a secret about her husband, you can sense that the story reaches another fork in its road: Should it collapse into life again? Or will Nooran paint a vengeance and morality drama with the rehabilitated colours of myth? Fortunately, the film goes with the latter – which is a way of implying that if Nooran is to break again, she will do it on her own terms and with her own palette.
There’s a lovemaking moment here that might have looked pretentious in any other context. Nooran seductively licks her husband’s sand-dotted face in the middle of the dunes, making him moan and giving him the touch he craved for so long. The extreme close-ups of their eyes and mouths are disorienting. But if you look at this moment as one where Nooran is trying to yank back her sense of aesthetic and wonder, it becomes a scene where lore is clearly wrestling with the microaggressions of life. Aadam isn’t who she thought he was, so Nooran is merely hoodwinking the male ego with the only power that can penetrate it. The film could have done without the theme of self-sacrifice (akin to the ‘heroism’ of jauhar in Padmaavat), but then again, it’s an alarming portrait of how triumph is an imaginary sibling of tragedy for women like Nooran.
The duality of Aadam’s character, too, ties into the film’s grammar. (As does the role of the scorpions, whose poison goes from being sinister to being an enabler). The camel trader is a complex man, but Irrfan Khan’s sublime turn ensures that we – like Nooran – see only the infatuation and not the obsession. We only see the Nice Guy, not the needy incel lurking within. It’s a Trojan Horse of a performance, using the actor’s standard rogue-lover persona as a front to hide some serious alpha-male malware. Writer-director Anup Singh did something similar in his second film, Qissa (2014), where he cast Khan as a patriarchal terror cloaked by the actor’s aloof tenderness. His Aadam is a masterclass in masculine subterfuge. What we notice is his bashful marriage proposal (he croaks “manzoor” thrice when a broken Nooran asks for help to find her grandmother) and shy pining. What we notice are his noble eyes and harmless grins. What we don’t (want to) notice is the edge in his voice when he remarks that Nooran may not have wished harm on him but she didn’t stop the villagers from beating him up either. What we don’t notice is how his jokey grasping of her hand might have gone further if the villagers hadn’t intervened. What we don’t notice is that, in a story about humans and genders, Aadam employs the trope of religion (his Hindu friend, played by Shashank Arora, is no onlooker) to rescue Nooran. What we certainly don’t notice is that his struggle to handle rejection hijacks his battle to earn her affection. Khan makes it impossible to dislike or suspect Aadam, which only adds to the moral ambiguity of his role in Nooran’s withering dreamscape.
At first, (exiled) Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani might seem like a strange choice to play an enigmatic Rajasthani folk singer. Nooran’s Hindi sounds different, almost stilted, in terms of the setting. At times, the doomed dubbing of Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar (2011) comes to mind. The question is as old as time: Why not cast a local star? The answer is obvious: It’s commercially designed to cater to a more global audience. But it’s just as easy to justify this as a creative decision. Nooran is more or less an ethereal foreigner in her environment. She doesn’t look or sound like the rest, because hers is a journey of an angel forced to adopt the wounds of a human. As a result, Farahani’s role is more physical than it is aural, with her language often serving as a reminder that she embodies the tug of war between the fetishization of the male gaze and the freedom of the female form. The people see her as a pariah by profession at first, then a pariah by fate. It’s only when she sings that she transcends her identity and sounds better – but not so different – from the rest. Farahani fits in and stands out at once, a testament to the film’s Shakespearean marriage of towering texture and tumultuous truth. For better or worse, it evokes a nagging sense that someone like Nooran would fade into oblivion if not for someone like Aadam. Someone like Nooran would remain a dream if not for the sleep-jolting calm of Aadam. After all, the song would be silent if not for the scorpions.