December 2022, marked the release of writer/director Anvitta Dhutt’s second film, Qala, or translated into english; art. After having set such a high benchmark with her debut film Bulbul, a supernatural thriller dealing with themes of child marriage, female autonomy and sexual abuse faced by women of aristocratic families in the latter half of 18th century Bengal, everyone expected only the best from Qala.
Like Dhutt’s previous work, women’s issues are the centre of the narrative. Qala explores the turbulent dynamic of a mother-daughter relationship while diving further into the artistry and stigma attached to women who worked in the music industry during the 1940s. So, whilst the narrative is strong, the execution falls short at times. Its 119 minute screen time doesn’t evenly dive through all elements of the plot, leaving us with a sense of unfulfilement.
Qala journeys to 1940’s Calcutta, India where the film follows the story of acclaimed singer Qala Manjushree (Tripti Dimri), who has just become a recipient of ‘The Golden Vinyl’, a huge accolade for accomplished musicians in India. She is the daughter of a profound musician and was raised by her widowed mother, Urmilla (Swastika Mukherjee). From Qala’s birth, the two had a strained relationship. Urmilla blames her for the death of her stillborn son. Through a series of flashbacks, the film recounts Qala’s childhood years. She is constantly yearning for Urmilla’s love while earnestly following her mother’s musical path. Ultimately all her efforts were futile. Urmilla remained hostile and distant. After all, Qala committed the ultimate sin. She ‘killed’ her twin brother and, in doing so, killed Urmilla’s dream of continuing the family legacy. At a musical performance, in which Qala and Urmilla are also in attendance, a young orphan boy called Jagan (Babil Khan) is asked to sing. Urmilla is entranced by his voice and immediately takes him under her wing with the promise of a successful music career.
Jagan seems to fill the void of Urmilla’s dead son and awakens Urmila’s maternal instincts. As a result, Qala’s relationship with her mother strains even further. as she becomes more dejectant and desperate to receive validation from her mother. Qala’s pent-up desperation ends up with her forgoing her morals and ruining Jagan’s future prospects.
Yet, it’s not easy to leave a traumatic past behind. Qala’s memories haunt her.
Throughout the film, she becomes progressively more disorientated and detached from reality. In the end, she is consumed by the intoxicating desire for success and acceptance.
In Dhutt’s film, the juxtaposing attitudes of Jagan and Qala’s career prospects are portrayed as the double standards in the music industry. Urmila nonchalantly vocalises how inappropriate it would be for Qala to be singing in bollywood productions, yet encourages Jagan to do so to push forward his career throughout the film. Urmila’s internalised misogyny is a reflection of society’s view of female singers of the time: loose and characterless.
So whilst Qala's actions are questionable and her sabotage, unforgivable, it is almost impossible not to empathise with her. She craves her mother’s love, acceptance and recognition. As a daughter and an artist, Qala finds herself struggling to find either in this male dominated world.
Everything returns to the underlying subject matter which binds all themes together - the mother/daughter relationship. Urmilla exudes pure coldness and indifference towards her daughter. It leads one to question if the roles were reversed and the son was the surviving child, would she still be a cold and harsh mother ?
Entirely too much screen time is dedicated to exploring the turbulent mother-daughter dynamic and watching Qala agonise, leaving little scope for conveying other important elements of the film. Jagan, a vital catalyst to the film’s denouement, almost becomes an afterthought. His character is a mystery and underdeveloped. He is afforded with very little screen time, leaving much to be desired. Not enough time is taken to explore the changing household dynamics his arrival brings. Snippets of a maternal Urmilla are seen to emphasise the juxtaposing treatment of Qala and Jagan, yet they simply don’t satisfy the viewer’s curiosity.
Each actor portrays these character’s faithfully, in particular Khan, who makes the best out of his limited appearances in the film. Dimri also does a good job with her portrayal as Qala. Despite the great performances, the film’s problem lies in the writing. Qala as a protagonist is oftentimes one dimensional. She is mousy, constantly on edge, afraid and desperate. Whilst her reactions make sense, the lack of variation makes for quite a lacklustre performance;there is essentially no character development. Her anger, jealousy, and her over consuming desire to succeed and meet her mother’s approval are all subdued. The unresolved muted and suppressed anger that brewed within Qala fails to meet the desire of success her heroine sought and makes for an anticlimactic, predictable ending.
Edited by Carlos Martinez
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