Qala is one of those precious films that does not compromise substance for style. Rather, it marries the two in a homogeneous union creating a work of illuminating beauty. It is available for streaming on Netflix.
Two years after making a striking directorial debut with Bulbbul, Anvita Dutt is out with her second film Qala, another beautifully constructed period drama on thwarted female desire and the tragedy of being a woman.
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Written by Dutt, Qala follows the playback singing sensation of the 1930s-40s, Qala Manjushree (Tripti Dimri), who, at the peak of her musical career, is struggling with the demons of a murky past that she thought she’d left behind at her snowy Himachal home. Opulently decorated with stately sets (courtesy Meenal Agarawal’s production design) and ornamental, delicate costumes (by Veera Kapur Ee), Qala, at heart, is a story of unrequited love—a daughter’s yearning for her mother’s attention and validation and paying a heavy price for it.
In the way it deals with the thorny relationship between Qala and her mother Urmila Devi (a cold, bewitching Swastika Mukherjee), Dutt’s film reminded me of Goldfish, the latest festival favorite directed by Pushan Kripalani starring Kalki Koechlin and Deepti Naval. Set in London in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, it too unpacks with remarkable poignancy how parents often weaponize neglect to hurt children that continues to haunt them for the rest of their lives.
For a story set in pre-independent India, Qala’s visual and vocal language is distinctly contemporary and feminist. The film opens with Qala giving a press conference to a room full of male journalists after winning the coveted Golden Vinyl. Among them, she singles out the lone female photographer to click her portrait. Her secretary is also a woman, an anomaly at the time. When asked why she chose her over another popular male candidate, she says, “Should I’ve hired him because he is good at his job or because he is not a woman?”
There are several other notable instances. In one scene early in the film, she demands that she be paid more than the male singer even if it’s by a rupee. In another, her lyricist friend Majrooh (a delightful cameo by Varun Grover) asks her not to tolerate the predations of a popular music composer. “It will continue if you allow it and stay quiet. Today, people like him go unpunished. Today, everyone ignores sexual abuse. But times will change. It’s an old trick of time,” he says.
Then there’s another scene in which Qala’s doctor (Abhishek Banerjee) dismisses her concerns over her mental disintegration citing all sorts of peripheral inanities such as menstruation, how artistes are overly sensitive, and how she needs a break. “Just stop thinking. You’re stressing yourself out too much. You are such a phenomenal singer. Focus on your singing,” he says.
Qala gets right what the recent Netflix adaptation of Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson got horribly wrong. It doesn’t force modernity or feminism, reducing them to frilly gimmickry. The film’s contemporary themes (including an evocative portrayal of a superstar’s mental health) are as intrinsic a part of its story as its distinctive narrative style, Sanjay Leela Bhansali-esque world-building, and meticulous attention to detail. Qala tries to use her voice to undo the wrong that she suffered and even inflicted on her way to the top. Armed with an awareness that only comes with first-hand experience, she tries to subvert all that she cannot change. She mostly succeeds at it. But that turns out to be her biggest failing.
Dimri gives an affecting performance as the eponymous protagonist who is consumed by the success for which she painstakingly compromises her all—mind, body, and soul. Dutt deftly morphs her into a moth (a recurring, haunting metaphor all through the film) that is too enamored with the flame to realize how fierce it will burn it.
Babil Khan (the son of the late Irrfan), plays Jagan, Qala’s gifted rival who her mother takes under her wing much to her envy. He is brilliant as the naturally talented protegee whose only crime is his faultless artistry. Amit Sial is solid too as the crafty music composer Samant Kumar, who gives Qala her big break in Hindi films. Swanand Kirkire, Sameer Kochchar, and Anushka Sharma also feature in lovely cameos.
Along with Agarawal’s production design and Ee’s costumes, cinematographer Siddharth Diwan’s dreamy camerawork and Amit Trivedi’s perceptive music (arguably his finest since Anurag Kashyap’s 2018 film Manmarziyaan) contribute significantly in making Qala a rich and layered experience of rare haunting. It is one of those precious films that does not compromise substance for style. Rather, it marries the two in a homogeneous union creating a work of illuminating beauty. It is available for streaming on Netflix.