Qala – you can easily read it as kala art. But in the film, Qala is the name of the female protagonist, who happens to be a singer. The film opens with the cutting of a gold record, a high point in her singing career it seems. But soon, his tormented past casts a shadow over his accomplishments.
Subsequently, the film moves back and forth in time as we are introduced to not only the making (or, is it the destruction?) of Qala, but also her stern mother Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), a former thumri singer.
A contentious relationship between mother and daughter in an industry that thrives on a self-sacrificing maa model is a rarity. Here you may not fully understand the mother’s lack of empathy for her only child, except perhaps alluding to the female child’s subservient position in the social hierarchy. But soon you’re drawn into that love-hate bond between mother and daughter that forms the backbone of the narrative written and directed by Anvita Dutt. If in his first film Bulbbul, Dutt created a visual painting, here the tone is poetic. Call it the song of melancholy if you like.
All the characters here carry the burden of grief with this melancholic gaze. In Babil Khan as Jagan, you can feel the intensity of his famous father Irrfan Khan. But Babil’s role isn’t long enough to be truly memorable, and you’d wish for his first film that this talented son of a brilliant actor had a meatier role. Of course, the frames you see him in are written with a serious innocence to match Qala’s fragile fragility. Your heart goes out for him in more than a scene or two. Trust Dutt to give us a male counter-representation, pitting Amit Sial’s exploitative music-composer role against Jagan’s soft-spoken one.
Sial often seen on OTT shows as the vile guy isn’t a saint here, but still isn’t just black and impresses. The same goes for Swastika Mukherjee as a towering mother figure, almost smothering her daughter, who constantly seeks her validation.
But the director’s muse here is undoubtedly Qala. Tripti Dimri plays Qala sometimes shy, sometimes confident, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes hostile with remarkable bliss. She is fragile, delicate, beautiful and strong… is she the protagonist or the antagonist, the victim or the aggressor… within the complexity of her character are the multiple layers of the film.
Is the character of Babil his alter ego, the deceased twin or simply a rival… the plot destabilizes us in more ways than one. And raises so many questions about success and makes us wonder and reflect; realization at what cost. Of course, as with Bulbbul, the finale here can feel predictable. But allegory hides in sameness. Metaphors abound if you pay attention to the game.
Set in the golden past of the 1930s and 1940s, Qala is as much an ode to music as it is to talent and pure art. Artistic at heart, the settings here are lush and poignantly beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and designer Meenal Agarwal. Songs rendered with soulful vocals by Sireesha Bhagavatula and Shahid Mallya, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, Kausar Munir, Swanand Kirkire and Varun Grover, Amit Trivedi’s music itself deserves a separate review.
Holding an aesthetic palette inspired by the Dutch Golden Age and the Art Nouveau style, Dutt chooses to tell women’s stories with a distinctly feminine voice and language. Resolute and beautiful, she inspires you to binge on the beauty of pathos, inner demons, sanity, and relationships that, in her words, are “an emotional minefield.”
Streaming on Netflix, there’s no reason for you to skip this fascinating journey of fractured bonds crafted with delicate finesse. With interior landscapes to match the exterior, Qala is an artistic toast.
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