Writer-director Anvitaa Dutt makes must-see movies. First with 2020’s Bulbbul and now with her second feature film Qala, Dutt has shown an immaculate attention to visual detail and the ability to create lush color palettes that Sherwin-Williams would envy.
As in Bulbbul, Qala finds Triptii Dimri playing another naive young woman trapped in a gloomy mansion with someone who wishes her ill. Qala‘s story, however, lacks the depth and layers that made Bulbbul so memorable.
Qala (Dimri) is the only child of Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), a famous singer who is the widow of an even more renowned musician that died before his daughter’s birth. Qala had a twin brother who did not survive, with the doctor noting that sometimes the stronger of the two fetuses will take the nutrients meant for the other. Urmila spends the rest of Qala’s life punishing the girl for this.
The movie opens with Qala at the height of her fame. She’s the most popular singer in the burgeoning Calcutta movie industry in the 1930s, and she’s just earned her first gold record. She lives in a gorgeous art nouveau home from which she grants interviews to a room full of reporters clad in sage green suits. But her achievements still aren’t enough to win her distant mother’s approval.
Through flashbacks, we learn that music isn’t Qala’s passion, but something she does because her mother demands it. That changes when Urmila meets Jagan (Babil Khan, Irrfan’s son in his film debut), a self-taught singer who has no family of his own. Urmila immediately adopts him, hoping to make him into the most popular movie singer in Calcutta. She predicts that one day he’ll earn a gold record. Urmila stops instructing Qala in music and instead tries to find her a husband.
Urmila’s emotional abuse takes its toll on Qala, who has elaborate hallucinations that are interesting to look at but do little to inform her character. Beyond Qala’s psychological damage, there’s little to her personality, almost like she only exists in the scenes we see in the movie. Of course the extent of her mother’s control is extreme, but for Qala to be as devoid of desire or social awareness as she is strains credulity. She’s shown reading in one sequence. However, the point is not to show books as Qala’s window into the outside world, but instead for the audience to notice the symbolism of the title she’s reading.
Dutt is heavy-handed with her metaphors, especially during Qala’s hallucinations and one particular shot of a gargoyle (if you know, you know). Qala‘s message isn’t so subtle that it needs such obvious symbolism. There’s a theme about Qala using her fame to promote women in an industry that relies on women’s involvement on- and off-screen while simultaneously shaming them for it, but it’s only surface level. The film has no subplots.
Still, a period movie set in the worlds of classical and film music and directed by a filmmaker with such a distinct visual style is meant to be watched for more than just its story and characters. In addition to the stunning lighting, filters, costumes, and interiors, the beautiful songs by Amit Trivedi and background score by Sagar Desai demand constant attention from the viewer. Even with its flaws, Qala is an unforgettable sensory experience.