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30 January 2023

Qala (2022)

Directed by: Anvita Dutt
Music: Amit Trivedi
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya,
Varun Grover, Kausar Munir,
Swanand Kirkire
Starring: Triptii Dimri, Babil Khan,
Swastika Mukherjee, Amit Sial,
Samir Kocchar, Tasveer Kamil,
Girija Oak, Abhishek Banerjee
Are you happy when you achieve your life’s ambition? Are you satisfied when adoring crowds shower their love and adulation over you? Is success worth doing what it takes to get there? Can you outrun your past?

*Warning: There may be some spoilers.

When we first meet the eponymous Qala (Trupti Dimri), she’s celebrating her first Golden Vinyl. Her secretary, Sudha (Girija Oak), beams protectively as Qala invites the sole woman photographer to take her photograph. 

How does it feel like to win a Golden Vinyl, asks another journalist. “Aisa lagta hai ki thak ke ghar pahunchi hoon aur maa ne darwaza khola hai," says Qala, with a smile. Like going home tired, and having your mother open the door to you. After all, this was her mother’s dream for her.

Since her childhood, Qala, the granddaughter of a famous thumri singer and the daughter of a classical maestro, has been told by her mother that she should work at her music – it’s her inheritance. Talent, education – these are not gendered. “Par ladki ho, is liye mehnat ziyaadah karni padegi. Izzat ka khayal ziyaadah rakhna padega.” 

Will she be able to do it? The young girl, seeking her mother’s love and approval, is determined to live up to her paternal legacy.

Soon, Qala is at the top of her career; producers queue up to sign her for their films; her photographs are splashed over the front page; she dines with the prime minister and other dignitaries. She has achieved her mother’s ambition. But what about her mother’s approval?

Anvita Dutta’s sophomore outing, Qala, is not so much the story of Qala as it is a series of vignettes that define her mindscape. Carefully crafted, we travel back and forth with Qala and piece together the fragments of her mind like a jigsaw.

Set in the late 1930s/early 40s [the one sticking point for me, but more about that later], when the film industry was still based in (then-) Calcutta, the film moves between the bustling city and the isolated snowscapes of Himachal Pradesh, where Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), Qala’s mother lives in almost-Gothic splendour.

While the main narrative unfolds in set pieces, the back-and-forth takes on a dream-like quality as we question whether what we are watching is the film’s reality, or whether we are seeing what Qala sees –are we on the outside, watching her explode, or are we inside her mind, watching it implode? 

Qala is both female-centric and feminist, but it is deeply rooted in the patriarchy that stifles the ambitions of women and gives them precious little agency. Interestingly, both men and women perpetuate this patriarchy, and while the charmingly named ‘Majrooh’ (Varun Grover) quips, “… daur badlega, daur ki ye puraani aadat hain”, you realize that much has changed, yet much remains the same. At one point, her mother, teaching her to sing, walks off saying that Qala has neither face nor voice nor talent. “Sorry, mama”, mumbles a tearful Qala. 

It’s a phrase she mutters many times in the film. She has struggled to measure up to her mother’s expectations – not of her, but of who she should have been – a son, to carry on her grandfather’s musical gharana. She has constantly been deemed lesser.

 And Triptii plays her like a tightly wound rubber band. You only have to look at her to wonder when she will snap. Because you know she will. There’s a tremulousness behind her smile, a yearning in her eyes, an unsteadiness that characterises every movement. 

You see her walking gingerly, each step taken with an excess of caution (except in one surreal scene), as if she’s afraid she will fall. Is this a physical fall she’s afraid of, or her fall from grace? The one act of agency she allows herself is slowly eating her up from within, and you can see that gauntness express itself on Triptii’s face. And you see why even the scenes of her success are undercut with sorrow, and worse.

If Triptii is the face of hapless progeny, then Swastika, playing Urmila Manjushree, is Gothic horror. Initially, she is Tiger Mom, shutting Qala out in the cold until she sings the notes without mistake. Later, her cruelty is almost thoughtless; all her hopes are now pinned on her protégé that she has no time for Qala. Earlier she had told Qala that she should work hard to achieve her goals, because “Naam ke aage ‘Pandit’ lagna chaahiye, us ke peechhe ‘Bai’ nahin.”   

Later, she points out that girls from good families did not sing in films. They got married and managed their husbands’ homes. Urmila’s cruelty is masked by her smiles, a look, and the touch of a hand.

But Urmila is not just perpetrator. Her hopes and dreams have crumbled under the weight of patriarchy. Her son, the one she pinned her hopes on of furthering her father’s gharana, dies in utero. Her losses define her. And behind her smiles, her pain is evident. There’s a scene with a cradle which is both touching and horrifying. 

And you see what made Urmila who and what she is. Swastika plays Urmila, not as a victim, but as a very real, very broken and very flawed individual whose ambition blinds her to the very real harm she’s doing to her daughter’s psyche.

Neither mother or daughter are very likeable, but neither are they portrayed as evil. They are merely two people who are stuck in a toxic loop of love and hate. Sympathies shift as we see the changing dynamics between the two. 

‘Jagan’ is Babil Khan’s debut. He is the folk singer who has the incredible luck of being ‘spotted’ and mentored. In her appreciation for his art (and perhaps, seeing in him the son she lost), Urmila is ready to go to any lengths to ensure his success. 

It’s a small role but Babil infuses his character with a gentleness that makes us ache for his loss. But before that, he teaches Qala a very important lesson – “I don’t sing for your mother,” he tells her, “I sing for myself.” It is not that he doesn’t see how Urmila’s partiality towards him is affecting Qala; he is young and self-centred enough not to really care. 

Perhaps to his mind, she’s the daughter of the house, while he’s an orphan. That lack of awareness causes him to pay a very heavy price later on.

While these three are the principal characters, the film is peopled with an excellent supporting cast: Amit Sial as Sumant Kumar, the music director who’s not beyond exploiting a young singer; Tasveer Kamil, as Naseeban, a female music director (I mention ‘female’ because it’s important in the context of the film); Sameer Kochhar as Chandan Lal Sanyal, a famous singer; Girija Oak as Sudha, the secretary; and the cameos
Varun Grover as Majrooh, Swanand Kirkire as Ustad Mansoor Khan Saheb, and Anushka Sharma as Devika.

(The character names provide a nod and a wink to real people from the film industry of the period.)

Anvita also plays around with repetition – with dialogues, shots, etc., almost as if to reinforce the idea that perceptions depend on context. When the doctor (Abhishek Banerjee) meets Qala, he tells her she just needs a break and she will be alright. “Shor hai, yahaan,” Qala tells the doctor, “dard hai, yahaan.” She’s repeating what Jagan had once told her.

Or take the shot where Qala collapses in the snow in the maze outside her house. There’s a mirror shot involving a mercury maze.

A huge shout out to Siddharth Diwan for the cinematography. 
Each shot resembles a painting – Gothic, Impressionist, even Dali-esque at times. And the lighting is extraordinary. 

I love that many a time, we only see half the actors’ faces – it amplifies the throwaway shot of Qala reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


And to Meenal Agarwal, Vasudha Saklani and Ramesh Yadav for production design, set design and art direction – the look of the film depended so much on their contributions.

Finally, the music – Qala is hands down the best film music album from 2022. Scored by Amit Trivedi (with one song composed by Sagar Desai), background music by Sagar Desai, and lyrics by Varun Grover, Swanand Kirkire, Kausar Munir and Amitabh Bhattacharya, and two Kabir poems, the songs are lovely. I especially love Rubaaiyaan, Shauq and Ghode pe Sawaar.

So what didn’t I like? The anachronisms – the language they speak in the film is too modern for the 1930s/40s. (So is the music, frankly, especially when you are taking playback, but I must confess I much prefer the music of the 50s and 60s). There’s the use of headphones while recording, for instance.  

But, is the period even the 30s/40s? A newspaper headline says 14 banks were nationalized – that happened in 1969. There’s mention of Gandhi – he died in 1948 – and Indira, presumably Gandhi? However, I am not sure that this fudging of time is not deliberate: perhaps it is to evoke a timeless period, ‘long long ago’? If I ever meet Anvita Dutt, I would love to ask her about it.

But this is a small quibble about a lovely film. 

p.s. The misspelling of 'Kala'? Just a clever (or not) way of using the astrological symbol for Mercury in the name.

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