Luckily for us and posterity, late actor Irrfan Khan’s final film is an exquisite piece of cinema. Enchanting to view and gorgeous in feel, The Song Of Scorpions is an enigmatic parable set to the tune of a cinematic rhythm by a master craftsman. I’ve been a fan of Anup Singh’s cinema since Qissa where Irrfan played a Sikh father hellbent on proving his daughter to be a son. In many ways in The Song Of Scorpions Irrfan plays a distant cousin to his character in Qissa. The film stars Irrfan alongside Golshifteh Farahani, Waheeda Rehman and Shashank Arora.
His camel-plying hero Aadam is a mulishly stubborn man, driven to obsessive self-destructive lengths by his passion for a stunning resolute woman of the deserts (Iranian beauty Golshifteh), who sings to scorpions. And there lies the sting! This is a film that addresses the position of power of a self-independent female in a dominantly patriarchal rural setting, and how such a woman who is “too big for her boots” is cut down to size by masculine autocracy.
Nooran roams the deserts with the confident strides of a faith healer until one night her faith is shaken. She comes home a broken woman and gives in to the offer of marriage with Aadam who loves her in a twisted terrifying way that finally tears into Nooran’s womb, rendering her revenge into a kind of nebulous feminist statement that will leave viewers stirred shaken and in a strange way healed and whole even as the narrative opens up wounds that have no cure.
This is an elegiac film haunted by long-suppressed demons of discrimination and masculine privilege. Golshifteh stands gracefully tall in the morass of intimidating masculinity. But I thought she was somewhat out of place in the Jaisalmer deserts. A bit like a swan swooping down into a cavalcade of crows. The stately Waheeda Rehman, on the other hand, just blends into the desert scape. This is not the first time that the actress has visited the sand dunes. Who has forgotten her in Reshma Aur Shera? Alas Ms Rahman’s role ends abruptly, as it is meant to, though her spirit haunts the film till the end, and beyond.
There is more than a hint of attraction between Irrfan and his sidekick-buddy Shashank Arora. Even when they visit brothels together (where Arora goes berserk while Khan remains chastely aloof), they are more interested in one another than the bounty of beauties beyond.
Irrfan, in one of his career’s best, owns his role as only he could. His stormy passion for Nooran is almost religious in its commitment. In one sequence, after Nooran gets up from the bed, Irrfan sniffs her pillow to get a whiff of the woman whom he won’t touch until she says so. It’s a complex character, whose densities are dismantled, broken down and deconstructed by an actor who never “played” characters. He owned them. The Song Of Scorpions is sumptuous in mood. The cinematographers (Pietro Zuercher, Carlotta Holy-Steinemann) capture the deserts in all their glory. But somewhere secreted in these sprawling stretches is the tragedy of a human heart that beats only for one love. This is not a love story. It is the story of a love that falls into an abyss.