'Qala' movie review: Anvitaa Dutt’s second feature is all design

The artfulness of Qala, after a point, starts distracting from its substance

Published: 06th December 2022 08:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th December 2022 03:02 PM   |  A+A-

A still from 'Qala.

A still from 'Qala.

Express News Service

Art is aspiration. It’s also antidote. Take the films of Anvitaa Dutt, for example. The director of Bulbbul and Qala—two exquisitely imagined, beguilingly old-world recent Hindi films—started her career as a lyricist and dialogue writer with YRF and Dharma. Neal ‘n’ Nikki, Tashan, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Luck, Dostana, Kambakkht Ishq, Badmaash Company, I Hate LUV Storys, Tees Maar Khan, and Student of the Year are just a few gems that line the trajectory of her early filmography. Honest commissioned work no doubt, though it must have taken a toll. No wonder then that, finally freed up as a storyteller, she likes disappearing into the past with tasteful music and rococo set decorations and never looking back.

Bulbbul was set in late 19th century Bengal and starred Tripti Dimri in the title role. Qala—also on Netflix—opens on a Calcutta balcony with Tripti holding up a Golden Vinyl to throngs of cheering fans. She’s Qala Manjushree, songstress extraordinaire and toast of the 1940s film industry. Her mother, Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), leads a quiet and secluded life in Himachal. They’re estranged—for difficult reasons. Qala’s twin, a male child Urmila had most hoped for, had died in utero. It made her heir apparent to an austere musical legacy— ‘You should be called a Pandit, not a Bai,” Urmila exhorts her daughter—a legacy we presume Qala has broken from in her mother’s mind, given her current stardom.

There is more. Discordant flashbacks abound. At her debut concert, Qala is upstaged by a talented young singer named Jagan (Babil Khan). Urmila takes the scrawny orphan under her wing, welcoming him into their home and sowing the seeds of bitter rivalry in the girl’s head. In the present timeline, we see Jagan returning to Qala in haunting flashes. Is he a wraith, a dream, a product of her own troubled, guilt-ridden mind? We’re watching a mental health movie—at least this much is clear—yet neither Dutt nor the performers relinquish the feeling of staging a spooky ghost story.

Like Bulbbul, Qala is beautifully assembled and shot. A lone boat gently drifts along an inky river, swathed in the moonlight. There are gargoyles and gramophones. The Howrah Bridge—the most clichéd of Calcutta images—is seen under construction. The frames are exceedingly pretty—overwhelmingly so. At one point, I was so lost in admiring the intricate traceries on Qala’s bedroom wall and the lively interplay of harsh and soft shadows that I stopped following the dialogue onscreen. This happened more than once. The design of Qala, after a point, starts distracting from its substance. The film is also heavy by way of metaphor, all mazes and moths and mercury.

History gently ruffles the curtains of this vintage world. A star performance is thinly attended because Mahatma Gandhi is in Shimla. “An artist has no caste,” Urmila assures an impresario. Anvitaa, who refracts present concerns through a period lens, weaves in commentary on pay parity and sexual exploitation. “The times will change”—Majrooh, a lyricist played by Varun Grover, tells Qala. The progressive bundles up with the regressive, a more rounded view of the fabled cosmopolitanism of the 40s Calcutta.

Babil, son of Irrfan, is efficient as the ghost-like Jagan. He is evidently green in certain sequences, especially when he has to look blank and inscrutable, but otherwise conveys emotions considerably well. Tripti—who had a lot more to work with in Bulbbul—plays Qala as an undifferentiated bag of nerves. It’s a one-note rendition of a person with mental health issues, further intensified by the skittish dream sequences. Swastika Mukherjee is intense as Urmila, skirting dangerously close to a type of villain and escaping unscathed. The pinpricks of warmth in the film’s tragic final stretch only really work because of her.

Film: Qala
Director: Anvita Dutt Guptan
Cast: Tripti Dimri, Babil Khan, Swastika Mukherjee, Amit Sial, Samir Kochhar, Varun Grover
Streaming on: Netflix

Rating: 2.5/5


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