Cast: Tripti Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, Amit Sial, Varun Grover
Direction: Avnita Dutt
Streaming on Netflix
The last time writer-director Avnita Dutt and actress Tripti Dimri got together for the 2020 film, Bulbbul, they created a witchy tale about how the world, hard-wired to pander to male desire, reacts when it encounters fierce female desire.
This time they have come together to tell a simple story about a stern mother and a spurned daughter with twisted complexity.
Set in the 1930s, Qala is a story of dark emotions in a stunning, polychromatic setting.
The film opens in Calcutta of the 1930s. “Didi,” as Qala (Tripti Dimri) is referred to, has won a prestigious singing award. There are press conferences, photo shoots, requests from directors and producers to sign their film.
Qala seems happy, in control.
But then a journalist asks Didi about her brother, Jagan (Babil Khan), a singer with a golden voice. Didn’t her mother bring him to Calcutta once, keen that he joins the film industry?
Qala twitches and begins to unravel as the present harks back to the past in cold, snowy Himachal.
Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee) was the proud wife of a singing maestro in Himachal. Though she herself was a well-regarded thumri singer, Urmila was keen that her husband’s legacy lives on through a son.
She was expecting twins – a boy and a girl – but when she was handed a sturdy little girl and told that in her womb the fittest survived, a pall of gloom spread through her body, and resentment set in.
Urmila named her daughter Qala (talent/art), taught her singing, but was mostly disappointed.
Qala tried her best to please her mother. She would practice for hours, but her talent fell short of her “pita ki virasat, maa ka sapna.”
Every time Qala sang, or even spoke of singing, Urmila’s mood darkened and it seemed to freeze the air in their well-appointed, all-wood mansion where only perfection was expected and welcome.
And then, one day, Urmila heard a young boy, Jagan, sing. For the first time Qala saw Urmila tap her hands, as if it were a musical instrument accompanying Jagan’s singing.
That was years ago.
Qala is now a top professional singer, and hopes her mother will finally be appreciative of her talent and achievements.
But mothers and daughters are sometimes locked in an existential embrace and the tiniest gesture, comment, memory can trigger a crisis.
Avnita Dutt has written and directed Qala as a feminist retelling of the broken relationship between a mother and daughter that’s complicated further by one woman’s ambitions, and another woman’s desperate need for approval.
The power dynamic between Urmila and Qala is always clear. The scales are always tipped in favor of the mother. And though the daughter does try to grab some power and move on, the lack of her mother’s approval tugs at her, pulls her back.
Without her mother, Qala can’t enjoy success. Without the rhythmic tapping of her mother’s hand, all her singing, all her awards seem worthless.
Qala is gorgeous to look at. The film recreates a charming old world with a lover’s zeal. Every scene, each set is embellished with nostalgia and the romance in its laidback opulence, delicate finery, genteel nazakat and tameez is seductive.
Its glamorous world, where women wear sheer sarees that look like they have been woven with glass threads, pulls us in.
But, like Dutt’s previous film Bulbbul, Qala too has an otherworldly quality to it. Qala and Urmila’s story of grudge, resentment, violence and death is woven with mystery and intrigue right from where it begins – in the womb. Though set in real time and in real places – Himachal and Calcutta – Qala doesn’t feel like it belongs to our world. It feels like Qala is mounted on a large floating canvas, or it’s set in a large snow globe that drifts lightly in the air.
Qala gets this haunting, transcendental quality partly from its mysterious story and misty setting, but also because of Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography.
Controlled and orchestrated, his camera often stalks characters and gives the film a strong cinematic language. In one particularly eerie scene, it seems as if the camera is pushing a tea trolley, as if it were a child rushing to please mummy.
Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, rosy-cheeked Swastika Mukherjee is brilliant as Urmila Manjushree. She is sexy, scary, delicate and cold. She brings all the complexity of a mother who is at once nurturing, ambitious, bereft, resentful and hopeful to her character.
Though the film repeatedly uses snow as a haunting reminder of a chilling past, it’s the change in her mood that controls the film’s temperature.
Tripti Dimri plays Qala as a personality split between a traumatized little girl crying for her mother’s attention and a successful, grown woman who knows her mind and has made a place for herself despite wily men. Her calm exterior is alluring, but it collapses all too often and she descends into her childhood trauma with tears at the tiniest reminder.
Irrfan Khan’s young son, Babil Khan, makes his acting debut in Qala with a strong performance. It would have made his dad very proud.