Anvitaa Dutt has followed up her beguiling debut feature Bulbbul (2020) with another heretical tale of thwarted female desire. While Bulbbul rewrote the rules of witchcraft lore in feudal Bengal through a feminist heroine, Qala presents a counter-narrative to accounts of women in the early years of the Hindi film industry.
Qala shares with Bulbbul a fantastical approach, hyper-real backdrops and anachronistic detail. Although the Hindi-language film takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, revisionist ambition guides the dialogue (some of which includes contemporary English phrases and sentiments), Amit Trivedi’s interpretive score and the treatment of stock characters from the period.
Qala (Triptii Dimri), a playback singer at the peak of her game, tells a journalist after receiving her latest burst of praise that she feels as though she has reached home, exhausted, to find her mother is waiting for her.
It’s a gossamer lie, spun by Qala to maintain a facade that rips upon close scrutiny. Qala’s thorny relationship with her mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), Urmila’s preference for the gifted folk singer Jagan (Babil Khan), and Qala’s desperate need for validation have brought her to the edge of insanity. This black swan harbours painful secrets, some of it the result of Urmila’s intransigence and some of it flowing from Qala’s circumstances.
Despite the loyal support of her secretary Sudha (Girija Oak), the soothing counsel of lyricist Majrooh (Varun Grover) and the encouragement of composer Naseeban (Tasveer Kamil), Qala flutters and flails, much like the moth that is irresistibly attracted to the flame that will eventually consume it.
The metaphor of the moth that dominates Dutt’s screenplay becomes literal when it appears as a motif on Qala’s saris and accessories scattered about her home. There are other metaphors too, some less explicit than others and all the more effective as a result.
Qala harbours unsettling memories of her loveless childhood, giving the narrative the surreal flavour of a waking nightmare. Another metaphor, whose meaning solders Qala with Jagan, is inventively explored through scenes, costumes, and sets.
Qala has been released on Netflix, as was Bulbbul. What is lost by a small-screen viewing might be gained by the unique advantage of the streaming experience: a particular tablueax can be frozen to take in cinematographer Siddharth Diwan’s lighting exercises and Meenal Agarawal’s evocative production design. This film needs a very large television set to admire Agarwal’s dazzling Art Nouveau-inspired sets and Veera Kapur Ee’s delicate costumes.
Inky blacks and metallic greys in Qala’s ancestral home in Himachal Pradesh give way to lighter fabrics and pastel shades after she makes her mark in Kolkata. Snow machines, fog machines and artificial lights are hard at work in a highly stylised narrative that sets out to boldly reimagine what we think we know about a woman’s place in the showbiz hustle.
Qala’s dealings, particularly with music composer Samant Kumar (Amit Sial), underscore the vulnerability of women in the film industry. There are shards of reality in Qala’s efforts to shake off the burden of a classical music legacy to craft a career in showbiz. Does this performer with the sweet and virginal voice remind some of us of a playback singer who emerged in this period?
The dance between overtly constructed backdrops and Qala’s acutely real trauma is not always graceful. A feeling of eternal winter abounds in a 119-minute narrative that is cold to the touch despite dealing with the passions of the heart.
The film’s dollhouse-like quality is creakiest when exploring the tortured mother-daughter relationship. The mesh of style and intent is smoothest in Dutt’s analysis of the treacherous ways of showbiz, which wounds women more than men.
The archness to the performances and dialogue delivery poses an insurmountable challenge to Triptii Dimri. The ease with which Dimri portrayed complex characters in Laila Majnu (2018) and Bulbbul is missing in Qala, and not just because her character is required to teeter on the edge at nearly all times. The leadenness of Swastika Mukherjee’s silver jewellery-laden diva too isn’t just a result of characterisation.
The actors in shorter roles, who are unburdened with having to convey meaning through metaphor, fare much better. Amit Sial is a wonderfully smooth operator. Babil Khan, in his debut role, has a soulful air as Urmila’s golden-voiced protege.
Varun Grover has an affecting cameo as a lyricist who sees through Qala’s bravado. Apart from paying tribute to Hindi cinema’s great Urdu wordsmiths, Grover has one of Qala’s sharpest lines: “The times change. This is an old trick of time.”