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Cast: Irrfan Khan, Golshifteh Farahani, Waheeda Rehman and Shashank Arora

Director: Anup Singh

Rating: Four stars (out of 5)

When the poison of obsession seeps into the human soul, the antidote is often worse than the venom. In The Song of Scorpions, a tale of betrayal and vengeance couched in a dark love story, writer-director Anup Singh (a follow-up to Qissa, which probed the spectre of patriarchy in post-Partition rural Punjab) forays into the visually arresting sand dunes of Rajasthan to gauge the wages of emotional fixation.

The story, which plays out in the Thar desert, foregrounds a woman who struggles to neutralise the toxicity flowing from a society that treats her like a dispensable commodity. She sings to cure people stung by scorpions but is herself laid low because no poison is worse than the one in the veins of a man.

The long-delayed release of The Song of Scorpions a day before Irrfan Khan’s third death anniversary is a tribute to the late actor as much as it is an occasion for us to savour the subtlety and precision that he brought to bear upon his craft. The Song of Scorpions is a befitting posthumous bow from a man who elevated screen acting to a fine art.

The film is informed with the beauty that is inherent in the healing power of music. It is at same time an acute dissection of a heart contaminated much in the manner of a body infected by a scorpion’s sting.

The Song of Scorpions employs understated but incisive ways – and the phenomenal skills of Irrfan Khan and the aching fragility and emotional transparency of Golshifteh Farahani – to dwell on a man and a woman navigating a relationship marred by inequity.

The writer-director does not use the arid landscape merely as a backdrop. He draws on the colour palette that the desert places at his disposal and creates an ambience that heightens the pathos inherent in the plight of a woman wronged and painted into a corner until she decides to rid her life of the poison.

Singh merges the available hues, the impenetrable darkness of the night and the sunlight at high noon ricocheting off the sand dunes with his profoundly poignant portrait of a traditional scorpion singer, Nooran (Farahani), who is compelled to use her voice to settle scores.

It is a traditional art that Nooran is still in the process of learning from her mother, Zubaida (Waheeda Rehman). Go out and learn from the stars in the sky, the old woman says to Nooran one night. A camel isn’t a camel if it does not roam the desert, she adds.

Nooran takes her amma’s advice, ventures into a desert engulfed by darkness and sings loud enough for Zubaida to be able to hear her voice as she lies in bed. But Nooran’s hopes of being as good a healer as her mother are dashed by a cruel turn of events sparked by a betrayal.

Nooran stops singing and suffers in silence. When the truth that lies beneath the surface is revealed to her and the light begins to shine again on her benighted life – her name is Hindustani for sunlight – she gathers the courage to plot revenge.

The constant interplay of mystery and steely determination on Farahani’s face enhances Nooran’s allure, which pierces the darkness that surrounds her. When contrasted with the expressive eyes and malleable visage of Irrfan Khan, it lifts the woman’s assertiveness to an epic plane.

Irrfan plays a camel trader, Aadam, a widower who is obsessed with Nooran’s hypnotic voice and nurtures the desire to marry her. His pursuit of the woman leads to a situation that threatens to drive him into a morally shady zone.

Anup Singh’s screenplay is way too layered to be analysed in black and white. The character of Aadam, meaning Man, is marked by ambiguity. In a conventional film, it would have been easy to judge the man. Here, he exists in a blurry penumbra where what he is up to is never absolutely clear.

How thin is the line that separates outright treachery and simple desperation? In Aadam’s case, it is almost invisible. The violence that Nooran is subjected to, and the losses that she suffers as an outcome of reprisals directed at her by a man who believes that they would make a great pair leave her with scars that she can barely disguise.

The director, with the help of Swiss cinematographer Pietro Zuercher and camera operator Carlotta Holy-Steinemann, fills the frames of The Song of Scorpions with the colours of the earth and the sky, and of bright daylight and starry nights.

Amid the darkness, narrow slivers of light streaming in through doors, windows and other openings in the wall illuminate Nooran’s face. In a rare extreme close-up of her face against Aadam’s, raw sensuality is suggested but the venom that has seeped into the world that they inhabit and Aadam’s pliable friend Munna (Shashank Arora) are never far from the surface.

The camera frames the characters mostly in mid-shots that suggest that they cannot overshadow the vast landscape no matter how hard they try. It is only the voices of Nooran and Zubaida that floats across the desert and mixes unhindered with the air.

Nooran is eventually displaced from her home and she turns her back on her art. Will she regain the power to heal the poisoned, the ability to glow in a world dimmed by self-serving wickedness, an ear recompense for the indignities heaped upon her?

The Song of Scorpions is the story of a woman muzzled by a world where humans are no less dangerous than poisonous arachnids. It is also the story of a voice that will not be silenced, a star that will not stop shining no matter how dark the night is.

A meticulously crafted film that is for every fan of Irrfan’s, The Song of Scorpions is also for everybody who believes that the medium is at its best when it is in the hands of true artists.

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