The Song of Scorpions review: A sublime Irrfan Khan in a stilted, inert fable

Despite an intriguing premise and strong performances by Irrfan Khan and Shashank Arora, Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions, a retelling of the fable of the scorpion and the frog, lacks bite

The Song of Scorpions

By now, most of us are well-versed with the fable of the scorpion and the frog. Standing on one side of a river, a scorpion — unable to swim — asks a frog if he can help him cross the river. The frog refuses at first, saying the scorpion will sting him. But then they would both drown, reasons the scorpion. The frog realises what the scorpion is saying is true, and agrees to help him cross the river. While doing so, the scorpion bites the frog. Right before drowning the frog asks, “But why?” The scorpion responds — “It’s in my nature.”

A fable as old as time, it has been recounted in umpteen stories over the years. In Anup Singh’s The Song of the Scorpions — a film completed in 2017 and remained unreleased till this Friday — the writer/director refashions the fable to ask a pressing question: “Is there a ‘true love’ that can triumph a scorpion’s sting?” (Hint: It can’t, as most survivors of abusive relationships will tell you.)

With Irrfan’s legendary stoic face, Pietro Zuercher’s sweeping cinematography and the vast dunes of Rajasthan — Singh ventures out to tell a story of a great betrayal. And while based on the lore surrounding it, where a large part of the story is about being reeled in before the final sting, the film works more in theory than it does in practicality.

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The healing songstress of Jaisalmer

Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani) is a young tribal in Jaisalmer, who heals people’s suffering, including the fatal sting of a scorpion. We’re told Nooran has been taught by her grandmother (Waheeda Rahman) to sing songs that stop the poison of a scorpion from spreading in a person’s body. Aadam (Irrfan), seeing Nooran treat a man in his village in the film’s first scene, is immediately smitten.

A camel trader by profession, Aadam chases Nooran all the way to her house. “We’ll be a one-of-a-kind pair,” he tells her. It all looks harmless, till Aadam is found to be flirting with Nooran, by some of her village acquaintances. Taking it as an instance of Aadam ‘troubling her’ — the acquaintances leave him with a black eye.

The Song of Scorpions

Singh’s choice for the film’s protagonist – Nooran – is an intriguing one. By casting an exiled Iranian actor to play someone who also bears the brunt of a hypermasculine society, is a noble choice on paper. However, Farahani’s stilted Hindi pronunciation and self-conscious performance doesn’t do any good for an audience willing to immerse into the film’s world. The problem isn’t just with Farahani though, even veteran actor Waheeda Rahman seems stiff. On the other hand, both Shashank Arora and Irrfan are as assured as they always have been.

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After coasting for 45 mins, Anup Singh’s film gets down to business when Nooran is summoned for a case of a scorpion bite. “A man is lying on the edge of a road,” a boy tells Nooran and his grandmother. It’s the dead of the night, and yet Nooran doesn’t think twice about setting out to help. Things take a violent turn and Nooran ends up injured, while her grandmother disappears for good. All love and warmth seems to disappear from Nooran’s life, over the course of a single night.

There’s a harrowing scene of a group of youngsters circling Nooran’s house like vultures, catcalling her, as she grapples with the life that was. Left to lead a life of a frigid corpse, losing her singing voice, an element of warmth comes back in her life when Aadam shows up and offers to marry her. At first, she isn’t sure why he’s here, but then she asks him for his help to find her grandmother — and Aadam responds with “Qubool hai” — barely able to conceal his happiness about ‘owning’ something he desired for so long.

Final sting lacks bite

While the rest of the cast intermittently ruptures the illusion the world is trying to build, the one thing that holds it together is Irrfan’s sublime turn as Aadam. Playing on our perception of what we think of Irrfan as a man, the late actor imbues his character with just the right amount of complexity.

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It’s credit to the late actor that his seemingly sincere, romantic lines like “I’ll cross the desert for you, how many ever times I need to” get a whole new meaning in the film’s final 20 minutes — and not as some cheesy ‘twist’, but we begin to see the character’s humanity hiding in plain sight. Irrfan did something similar in his earlier collaboration with writer/director Anup Singh in Qissa (2013), where even his delusion and denial were rooted in empathy and awareness.

But while Qissa had a haunting folklore lending itself to the horrors of Partition and the overnight feeling of abandonment for millions of people, The Song of Scorpions’ lore is relatively inert. It’s a thin thesis that gets drawn out by about 30 minutes. As a result, there are vast arid stretches in the film, where the film floats like a kite in the sky, desperately hoping for some wind to help carry it in one direction or another.

Singh’s intention to lull his viewers into a life of “normalcy” and “goodness” is well-founded, however the final sting doesn’t quite register the overall devastation — something Qissa did so brilliantly. As Nooran becomes privy to a secret, her act of revenge feels almost too convenient. Even as Aadam pleads with her continuously, trying to prove his love to her as pure. “It’s in my nature” — Nooran seems to suggest, being a self-sacrificial woman in an Indian film.