Qala movie review: Anvitaa Dutt's film struggles to rise above its parts
Qala movie review: Tripti Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee and Babil Khan star in this psychological drama about a singer haunted by her past, trying to find her ground.
When the doctor asks Qala about her symptoms for her health condition, she is firmly articulate in the way she says it's not physical ailment, but more of an emotional turmoil. "It's like," she begins to whisper, "I've been waiting for something to happen. And it is happening." The doctor tells her not to overthink, and concentrate more on her singing. That's precisely the point everyone tries to make, where Qala's mental health is not to be given too much importance. Given the setting is Calcutta in the 1930s, it is almost an outlier as a topic. Yet, this particular scene, that arrives quite early in Anvitaa Dutt's sophomore feature film directorial, establishes the narrative's revolving theme of mining out the inner landscape of an artist. (Also read: Babil Khan says he hates the word 'debut' ahead of Qala release: ‘If I wasn’t Irrfan Khan’s son nobody would have cared’)
Qala follows the eponymous protagonist (played by Tripti Dimri) as a young girl who wishes to become a great singer, mostly to win her mother Urmila's (Swastika Mukherjee) approval. The flashback tells us how they live isolated in a dimly-lit house in the Himachal, where her mother tells her that she has to work harder than any man to achieve success as a playback singer. Qala tries her best, but there's an extent to which hardwork can lead up to talent, which Qala lacks. Urmila notices this, and rebukes her- "akal mein zero, shakal mein zero, talent mein zero." Qala is left with a blinding sense of inadequacy, as she yearns only to seek Urmila's approval above everything else.
When an orphan named Jagan (Babil Khan, making his debut) appears out of nowhere, and charms his way through his gorgeous vocals, Qala notices how her mother responds so willingly to him. Qala is devastated when her mother gives him the space at their home, and sets him up for regular practice sessions and introduces him to eminent film personalities to help him with his career. What is to become of Qala then? Urmila tells her that a daughter's place is always with her husband, so she should get married as well. What can Qala do now to safeguard her artistic pursuits?
Qala constantly shifts from present to the past, as Anvitaa tries to situate her viewers in the mind of her female protagonist. Whether we see her hallucinating or crumbling down with nervousness, there is a certain confidence in the way the Bulbbul director constructs the narrative fabric of Qala. Yet, Qala's journey is built in a suspended deceit that does not quite know where to focus. On one hand, it is about the toxic and abusive relationship between a mother and daughter, and then it transforms into an artist's quest for expression and identity, while also revealing the misogynistic tendencies that are brushed under the carpet in any industry. Qala feels disjointed as a whole as it tries to bridge these elements together, and becomes a sum of its individual ideas, never fully transforming into a whole portrait of an artist in crisis. Flashbacks to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan are evident, yet Qala is quieter, more reserved in its own wavelength.
Technically, Qala is superb. As evident in Bulbbul, director Anvitaa Dutt masterfully assembles an expert team of artists that help in bringing the film together. Gorgeously shot by Siddharth Diwan, each scene is mapped out like a painting. Meenal Agarwal's production design serves a dreamlike space for these characters to inhabit. Most of all, it is Amit Trivedi's music that powers through the moods and rhythms of the film with an icy-cold opacity, giving Qala its much-needed energy. Yet for so much scope and vision in its technical aspects, Qala falls flat when the light reveals the characters.
Tripti Dimri is in fine form but her character is frustratingly one-note and delivered mostly in the same anxious wavelength. Swastika Mukherjee, clad in those gorgeous silver jewelry, plays Urmila with force and power, but her character is given little to no scope to reveal the change of heart that occurs later in the film, leaving behind too many questions unanswered. As Jagan, Babil Khan gives a haunting debut turn, unusually charming yet also underutilized in the film's treatment overall. His introduction scene alone is one for the ages. Varun Grover is quite a revelation in his cameo as the lyricist Majrooh, with the sly reveal of his red nail paint quite playful in the world of hypocritical male figures. By the time, Qala's arc spirals, the film edges on to an otherwise predictable climax, giving the journey a vacant denouement.
There's a lot to like in Qala, and somewhere within its overcrowded chambers lies a potent film about mental health and female agency. Even with so much happening, there's not much that gets past. One wishes the film mirrored Qala's temperament with a little more vigour. Qala, even in its persuasive best, ultimately feels lost in its stylistic embellishments to figure out how to make the underlying conflict visible.