Tag Archives: Swastika Mukherjee

Movie Review: Qala (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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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.

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Movie Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

Detective_Byomkesh_Bakshy_poster4 Stars (out of 4)

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Reviewer’s note: The character of Byomkesh Bakshy (originally spelled “Bakshi”) is a creation of Bengali author Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay, who wrote thirty-two stories about the detective between 1932 and 1970. I have never read any of Bandhopadhyay’s stories, so this review will not compare the original literary detective to Banerjee’s updated film version. I am treating Banerjee’s detective as a completely separate entity.

Director Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a visually stunning mystery that’s worth watching for its sumptuous style alone — though it also has much more going for it.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! opens with a brutal drug deal gone bad, before shifting forward in time to Calcutta, 1943. Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) is an unassuming young man with a reputation for solving mysteries. He’s quick to correct anyone who calls him a detective; he just pursues the truth.

A bespectacled young man, Ajit (Anand Tiwari), asks Byomkesh for help finding his missing father, but Byomkesh is dismissive. The man was most likely murdered for being mixed up in something shady or ran off with a woman, Byomkesh tells Ajit, who punches him before storming out.

When Byomkesh’s girlfriend confesses that she’s marrying a man with better job prospects, he apologizes to Ajit and takes on the case. Clues lead Byomkesh to a boarding house in another part of Calcutta, run by clever Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi). The search for clues takes a dangerous turn when Byomkesh finds a connection between Ajit’s missing father an a powerful politician.

The backdrop to Byomkesh’s investigation is a city on edge due to repeated bombings of strategic British targets by the Japanese. My Midwestern American primary education on World War II included no references to the effects of the war on British-controlled India, so I found the the film’s setting fascinating. As soon as the air raid sirens sounded during Byomkesh’s first night in the boarding house, I was hooked.

Banerjee takes the time and place into consideration in his shots. Shadows pervade, since overhead interior lights and bright streetlamps wouldn’t have been common during that era, and particularly not during wartime. The brightest shots in the film take place on the set of a movie starring Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee, who looks every bit the bombshell).

The sound design of the film is equally as effective as the lighting. Urban hubbub stands in for a background score, and the specter of the air raid siren looms. When Byomkesh tentatively approaches a dormant furnace during his investigation, a ghostly mechanical thrum accompanies his steps.

When Banerjee does employ music with lyrics, the songs have a contemporary feel, be it Indian music or thrash metal. The juxtaposition of the period visuals with modern music heightens the emotional impact. Banerjee isn’t going for total authenticity. His representation of Calcutta is highly stylized, and the contemporary music suits it.

The music also makes the film’s graphic violence feel more appropriate. While there isn’t a lot of violence, that which exists is bloody and brutally administered. It’s shocking, and perhaps not for the faint of heart (and it’s especially inappropriate for children).

Yet what also makes it appropriate is Byomkesh’s reaction to this violence. He abhors it and feels responsible for those harmed even indirectly by his investigation. It’s one aspect of Byomkesh’s personality that makes him such a great character. He’s an ordinary guy in a pop culture era when trend demands that Western movie and TV detectives be quirky or socially maladroit. His only quirk is that he can’t let go of a case until he discovers the truth, even when it puts his life in danger.

Rajput is terrific, giving an understated performance that blends with the story rather than drawing attention to itself. During the course of the film, Byomkesh and Ajit develop a nice working friendship, and Tiwari matches Rajput’s style well.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is ripe for a sequel, and it hope it gets several. A great lead character and a stunningly rendered Calcutta make Bakshy’s world one I want to revisit over and over again.

Links

  • Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! at Wikipedia
  • Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! at IMDb