Qala is about Anvitaa Dutt and her mastery over her qala. She, along with her crew, creates a heartbreakingly beautiful and opulent world where every frame oozes poetry, music, and melancholia.
Director: Anvitaa Dutt
Writer: Anvitaa Dutt
Cast: Tripti Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, Amit Sial, Swanand Kirkire, Varun Grover, Girija Oak
Stars: Four and half
It is the 1930s and we are in Calcutta. The thriving film industry is celebrating its newest star. Qala (Tripti Dimri), a young playback singer, has just won a prestigious award, an acknowledgment of the place she has carved out for herself. But just when she reaches the peak of her career, she starts to crumble from inside. Her soul is weighed down by a sense of intense guilt and remorse. A flashback takes us to a stark and frozen Himachali landscape where a frosty relationship between a mother and a daughter is unfolding at a glacial pace.
Young Qala was part of a set of twins and upon her birth, she is blamed for killing his brother inside the womb. Her mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), a renowned singer, is, on one hand, acutely aware of the challenges a woman artiste has to face in a man’s world and hence wants her daughter to be absolutely great at her job, and, on the other, she finds her daughter not talented enough to play the part she has handpicked for her. Urmila is more of an artiste than a mother. Hence, when she comes across a far more talented young lad, Jagan (Babil Khan), she puts all her efforts into mentoring him, leaving her daughter pining for her attention, love, and validation — so much so that Qala feels that she has become invisible to her mother and to the world. She takes it upon herself to be ‘seen’. Aware of the fact that she can’t overshadow Jagan with her singing prowess, she takes the extreme step of silencing his voice altogether.
She then enters a world of showbiz, a world ruled by men, and tries to create a path for herself, which is not always through her talent. She learns to play the game and learns to ace it. Along the way, she finds her people who try to smooth the rough edges of this journey. Among them is her secretary and primary caregiver Sudha (Girija Oak), the lyricist with pink nail polish, Majrooh (Varun Grover) who supplies her with copious doses of empathy and is her source of solace, and composer Naseeban (Tasveer Kamil), who becomes her proxy mother and a shield of sorts in the hostile city.
While all her life choices and decisions seem to be focussed on getting fame, it is essentially a basic need to get validation from her mother. So, even when she has the entire world under her feet and the biggest recognition from the industry, she pines for her mother’s approval, which never comes.
The relationship between Qala and her supremely talented mother, Urmila who is often brutal with her teaching methods is reminiscent of the young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman and his ruthless instructor, Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. The movie is an exploration of the dark abyss creative rivalry can push one into. It has a distinct Black Swan vibe with Tripti Dimri’s portrayal of the titular classical musician reminding one of Natalie Portman’s turn as Nina Sayers — a character that has a childlike innocence and looks as fragile and as pretty as a porcelain doll, but has sharp-edged darkness inside that stabs and shatters the pulchritudinous exterior. Tripti Dimri is the perfect choice to play Qala.
Her’s is a story of a butterfly turning into a moth (an imagery that Dutt uses in the title credits, uses as a motif on Qala’s saris and is present in the accessories spread across the house) — one is reminded of Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire; her wings symbolising her emotional fragility, she is flitting around like a moth, she tries to shield herself from the harshness of the naked bulbs (the spotlight and the flashes of the camera in case of Qala) but eventually she gets dazzled and is scorched to death.
Imagine Macbeth as a story of just Banquo and Macbeth (with Lady Macbeth being his inner demon). Two warriors who are compatriots and friends, both poised for greatness, but one’s overarching ambition and self-doubt make him take a drastic step, a step that will keep haunting him for the rest of his life slowly pushing him towards insanity. This can be the story of Qala. What is interesting is in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2004 adaptation of the William Shakespeare play, Macbeth aka Maqbool was played to perfection by the late Irrfan Khan. In Anvitaa’s Qala, his son Babil makes his debut as Banquo.
The dapper young man looks so much like his late father and has such an electric screen presence that the audience is constantly reminded of Irrfan, the ghost of his brilliance is palpable especially when Babil appears as an apparition, which is an embodiment of Qala’s guilt in the movie (and maybe that of audience’s collective grief over the passing of the actor). What is also interesting is that like Qala who is following in the footsteps of her extremely talented mother constantly trying to match up to her and seeking validation for her own talent, Babil seems to be on a similar path. And he has made an assured debut as Jagan, a character that might have its inspiration in Master Madan, a Ghazal and geet singer of India of the pre-independence era, who was a child protégé and died young in Shimla, after drinking mercury-laced milk.
Although the musical thriller has a predictable plot, it is pregnant with poignant, often scathing dialogues. Be it pointing out the transient nature of time and fame or talking about the ridiculousness of attaching gendered terms to gender-neutral professions, defining the difference between a prefix (pandit) and a suffix (bai), or pointing out how the society, even the medical professionals have a casual approach towards women’s mental health, often dismissing it as just being a woman’s experience and being on ‘that time of the month’. If the dialogues are poetic, so are the visuals Anvitaa creates with her cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and production designer, Meenal Agarawal — each frame is like a painting with the marked Art Nouveau influence which also reflects the distortion of vision. Especially stunning are the scenes of dreams and hallucinations. The lighting is exquisite and symbolic. The drama created inside closed spaces using a haunting darkness reminds one of the Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. If the Himachal chapter is about whites (of the frozen landscape) and greys (clothes) and metal (jewellery and the mercury), and create a cold, dreary and heavy ambiance, the scenes that unfold in Kolkata are rich and illuminated with sporadic flashlights of the camera accentuating the jarring reality of life under the spotlight and its blinding effect. The transitions between scenes should be a masterclass in itself.
But the music of this movie is something that deserves a special mention. The music by Amit Trivedi, the background score by Sagar Desai, and the sound design by Pritam Das add a different dimension to Qala. If Jagan’s introduction song, Nirbhau Nirvair, composed by Trivedi and written by Sant Kabir and Anvitaa, and voiced by Shahid Mallya is a masterpiece, the lilting melody of Ghodey Pe Sawaar, written by Amitabh Bhattacharya and sung by Sireesha Bhagavatula, transports one directly to the ’30s and ’40s. Shauq sung by Swanand Kirkire, Shahid Mallya and Sireesha Bhagavatula, is an excellent example of Varun Grover’s writing. This is one music album that you will find yourself listening to on loop.
Qala is a scathing commentary on gender discrimination in a professional setup, a mirror to the patriarchal society, a poignant take on mental health, and also a homage to the film industry of the ’40s—a time when cinema in the country was transitioning from silent films to talkies and when the Hindi industry was yet to shift from Calcutta to Bombay. It documents the plight of women during the early years of the film industry and one is appalled to realise how not much has really changed over the years.
Tripti Dimri aces the role of the delicate and emotionally fragile Qala, Swastika is spot on as her stoic mother, Urmila, Babil Khan makes an assured debut, and all the rest of the members of the cast shine in their respective roles. But Qala is about Anvitaa Dutt and her mastery over her qala. She, along with her crew, creates a heartbreakingly beautiful and opulent world where every frame is drenched in colour and oozes poetry, music, and melancholia. It is Bhansali meets Guru Dutt, but it is a world that is uniquely Anvitaa Dutt.