How It’s Made: Sex and Gender in Qissa

Qissa is a 2013 Punjabi language film by the director Anup Singh, written jointly by Singh and Madhuja Mukherjee. It explores various cultural practices and norms predominantly the desire for a son and the extreme measures taken to that end as well as the social construction of gender. This essay analyses the film Qissa with a focus on its portrayal of a range of masculinities and a making of the same where it may lack. 

Both the plot and the thematic structure of the film are circular. It begins and ends at the same scene, a haunting visual that lingers even after it has passed, a warning of what is to come. The tint of the film changes with the mood of the plot, parts of it coloured while the rest a dismal blue, affecting how we as spectators feel. It practices a degree of command, a hegemonic control over what we may see and how we may react. Perhaps it is because our narrator is Umber, positioned at the apex of the masculine hierarchy. 

The beginning of the film sees him dragging the body of a man (presumably Muslim) he has killed in the Partition riots with the intention of throwing him into the village well. While some onlookers and fellow fighters congratulate him, another reprimands saying “A true Sikh would never do this.” This evidences Sikh masculinity and its plurality within the community where cold-blooded brute force is both celebrated and criticised. The latter also seems to be rooted in religion as the man expresses a fear that the act will bring a curse upon him and the village. There is an implicit suggestion that it is this curse that triggers the subsequent events. 

The absence of women from the village refers to the incidents that took place during the partition riots. As documented by Urvashi Butalia, women’s bodies were seen as endangered, as sites of revenge, emasculation, and dishonour; also a symbol of masculinity.

The following sequence reveals the central plot point of the film when Umber is disappointed to know that his wife has given birth to their third daughter and refuses to hold her. This is because, within the cultural context, only men are qualified as the carriers of legacy and lineage. It is only the father who is preoccupied with this idea because a child will bear his name and rightfully belong to him, not the mother.

After moving to India, Mehar is pregnant again. Umber is certain this will be a boy.

After moving to India, Mehar is pregnant again. Umber is certain this will be a boy. His pathological obsession with a male heir becomes evident when his wife gives birth for the fourth time. The midwife hands the baby to him without declaring its sex. We only learn from Umber’s hysterical joy that it is a boy. Things take a grim turn as his wife, upon holding the baby shockingly claims, it would be better to kill the child than do what he is intending to. We are not informed what that is. Only the ‘male’ heir gets a title for a name, Kanwar (prince).

The film poses a dilemma for a feminist spectator as to how to identify Kanwar within the bounds of language. The ambiguity and uncertainty one feels as a viewer in the latter half is mimetic of the identity crisis that plagues Kanwar too. Is Kanwar ‘he’ for how their gender has been constructed, ‘she’ for how they ‘really’ are, or someplace in between the sex/gender dichotomy? Following Judith Butler’s argument, that both are one and the same (culturally constructed), in an attempt to acknowledge Kanwar’s agency (or lack thereof), I have preferred the more neutral ‘they’.

Kanwar’s coming follows the various patterns of socialisation that go into making a manly man. There is a separation of space between the ‘brother’ and the sisters. Following Krishna Kumar’s observations in his text Growing Up Male, although Kanwar sees their sisters with a longing curiosity, they come to see women as a threat. So although they view with envy their sisters joyfully celebrating Lodhi through activities reserved for women, they also pee on their bed to have them punished.

Boys don’t cry and so Kanwar is told not to either. Kanwar drives a truck, goes hunting to kill bears, wears men’s clothing, and takes over Umber’s business as the rightful leader of the public domain. Kanwar is seen as a man and so no one doubts whether they are one or not. Like the interview subjects of Zara Saeidzadeh’s study on Trans Men, the lack of a penis does not affect how their masculinity is overtly perceived. However, the inability to perform sexually, an imperative part of masculinity, also becomes a cause for tension once they are married.

Once the truth comes out, a re-socialisation is initiated guided by Neeli who tells Kanwar they can now be what they are. Being told their identity had been a lie, concocted by a patriarchal father leads them into a crisis no longer knowing ‘who they really are.’ Both times, the gender identities are imposed on them, first by the misogynist notions of their father and later by the internalised gender norms of their wife/friend. 

This aligns with feminist observations that gender is constructed via one of the mechanisms emphasised here which is social learning. It invokes Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but becomes a woman. Further expounded on by Butler, she argued for a theory of performativity. She argues “that bodies are ‘forcibly materialized over time’ by the reiterative, repeated practices of gender performance”. The same is contended by Sanjay Srivastava when he writes that masculinity is enacted and not expressed. As it also happens in the case of Kanwar where his transgressions are reprimanded and so the stolen moments of dressing up in girls’ clothes happen in secret. Butler further notes that gender identity is never secure and requires continued performance. In the film, Kanwar’s life falls into jeopardy once they give up this performance and the community discovers that they are not in fact a man. 

Sarthak Mehra’s article draws an interesting connection between the film and the Gloria Steinem essay ‘If men could menstruate’. Steinem writes, “if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not…menstruation would become an enviable, boast worthy, masculine event. Boys would mark the onset of menses that longed for proof of manhood”. The same is demonstrated in the film as a 12-year-old Kanwar informs their father in the middle of the night of the blood on their clothes. Umber greets them for their progression into ‘manhood’ (although later burning the bloodied cloth to hide the feminine shame). It is followed by Kanwar’s turban ceremony, a joyous moment involving song and dance. As Garha also explains that the turban for upper-caste Sikh men signifies pride and manhood.

The necessity for muscularity is also emphasised as the embodied aspect of masculinity. Umber, therefore, employs a wrestler to train Kanwar. The wrestler, presumably aware of the truth, teaches Kanwar how to bind their chest and advises them to do so always.

Umber doesn’t completely die, his ghost remains, haunting Kanwar even after they have begun to shed their notions of masculinity, eventually taking their life. This can be read as the residual nature of masculinity expounded by Srivastava in his essay on Masculinity Studies. Even the marginalised and the subordinated are not rid of their masculinist notions.

Umber doesn’t completely die, his ghost remains, haunting Kanwar even after they have begun to shed their notions of masculinity, eventually taking their life.

According to R W Connell’s perception of hegemonic masculinity, it “is constructed in relation to several subordinate masculinities as well as in relation to women”. Umber is then placed within hegemonic masculinity as he accrued dominance by virtue of his social position as well as the use of force. He dominates over both, the women in his family and the men in his community. His mere look is enough to make Mehar’s smile fade. To have his ‘son’ marry, he only has to ask. His towering presence is also made evident by how those select few who are let into the family secret, like the midwife and the wrestler, never dare to reveal it.

Those surrounding Umber exude subordinate masculinity in relation to him, including Kanwar. Kanwar slut shames Neeli when they first meet and avenges the subsequent emasculation of her slap by locking her into a dark room for a night. However, they also come across as sensitive, reflected through their relationship with Neeli, a clue into their ‘feminine psyche’. 

Neeli’s father, similarly, plays into the quintessential father of the bride, the disempowered man who is all too glad to be rid of a burden. All Umber has to do is ask. 

The hegemonic vacuum created by Umber’s death is taken over by the angry mob of men who come to attack Kanwar on learning their true identity. They only disperse when Umber returns, posing as Kanwar, to once again assert his masculinity. 

In another extreme measure to acquire the male heir and a demonstration of hegemonic masculinity, Umber attempts to rape Neeli, as ‘it is the only way’ to keep his legacy alive. According to Mehra, Umber’s dying words are a reflection of gender difference as he says “Rrahega toh tu janani hi” (you will remain a girl only). Mehra connects it to “Carol Gilligan’s argument that women are influenced by notions like empathy”. However faintly, the film reveals its essentialist view of gender even as it problematises it. Neeli figures as a voice of reason against the authoritative figure of the father even as she imposes her own understanding of gender on Kanwar.

Umber cannot be dismissed as a father even as he shifts between nurturing and authoritative roles. But his care is contingent on the gender of his favourite child. Although he is a menacing presence with an overt desire for a son, there are moments when he is gentle with his daughters. The only time we see him hit them is when Kanwar gets hurt while fighting with one of them. This scene also reminded me of the countless instances recounted by Living Smile Vidya in her autobiography when referencing a similar context. Her sisters were punished even when she made the mistakes. 

Once the truth comes out, a re-socialisation is initiated guided by Neeli who tells Kanwar they can now be what they are… Unlike everyone else, she is the only one who stares back at Umber with power. And like him, attempts to direct Kanwar’s identity.

The film fits into a social commentary about cultural preference for sons. Films like Jalpari (Hindi; 2012) and Kanna Kanmani (Malayalam; 2009) also portray a similar message using an element of horror. While the former produces fear through the very act of mass killing and a pond full of aborted foetuses; the latter instils it using a haunting by the aborted girl child. Horror in Qissa, however, is the bringing up of a ‘female’ as a boy; ‘it is better to have killed the child,’ the mother says.

If it is all for the sake of legacy then men go to war and die while fragile women wait in camps, so shouldn’t carrying forward the lineage rest on the women? But then it is also an aspect of masculinity, brave and strong men who live and return deserve to have their names carved into history. Even Rani Lakshmibai, despite all her bravery, has been immortalised as ‘mardaani’.

The film troubles gender subtly too. Neeli, despite having sex/gender coherence is named ‘blue’, stereotypically the colour of men, because to an extent she exudes masculinity as well. Unlike everyone else, she is the only one who stares back at Umber with power. And like him, attempts to direct Kanwar’s identity.

The ending is too grim, a purposeful lack of a happily ever after, a warning. Kanwar and Neeli laugh at their predicament; being women themselves they fell in love with a woman, too silly to be true. An epiphany never strikes that maybe those assigned female can be masculine, that two women can love, that wells cannot cast a curse.


Saeidzadeh, Z. (2019). “Are trans men the manliest of men?” Gender practices, trans masculinity and mardānegī in contemporary Iran. Journal of Gender Studies .

Srivastava, S. (2015). Masculinity studies and Feminism. Men Doing Feminism , 35-49.

Also Read: Courageous Filmmaking: Contextualising Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy

Vandana Likhmania

Vandana is a fat, feminist, writer whose works have been published on several online platforms. As a gender studies and history scholar, she takes a special interest in the eerie smells of dilapidated dwellings, the dilemmas of being a woman, the poetry in prosaic sentences, motion pictures, and rock music. She often forgets what day it is while watching British panel shows. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram (@vanwritemania)

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