In an industry where storytellers usually avoid negotiating the mindscapes of their protagonists, writer-director Anvita Dutta is an exception. After the spooky Bulbbul, she weaves a musical exploration of the mind of a cuckoo-like girl who is caught between ambition and skill, between expectations and reality. It is difficult to like or empathise with Qala (Triptii Dimri). Like a cuckoo, she is a parasite. A doctor tells us that in her mother’s womb, she sucked her twin brother’s nutrition. Later, when she could not meet the standards set by her demanding mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), a thumri singer past her prime, Qala decides to cull competition at home by making compromises that she ironically learnt while watching her mother walk on feet of clay.
But, in the process, Qala starts loathing her imposter self and descends into a vacuum. But the noise of her soul continues to trouble her. It is a tragic situation, and, in Amit Trivedi and a string of top lyricists of our time — Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire, Kausar Munir, and Varun Grover — Anvitaa has a team to give voice to the chaos that plays havoc in Qala’s mind. Together with cinematographer Siddharth Divan and production designer Meenal Agrawal, she painstakingly paints the fuzzy inner world of Qala.
However, the magic of the visual and sonic tapestry doesn’t translate into interesting characters and motivations. There are moments that capture the tenuous relationship between the mother and daughter, but the screenwriting is more like sentences that have all the words, but in the wrong order. You can see that it is about a mother coming in the way of a daughter due to centuries of patriarchy, but there has to be something more that makes Qala wilt so easily. The screenplay seems full of unexplored possibilities... but Anvitaa surprisingly sticks to one-and-a-half notes.
Positioned in the film industry of the 1930s when Calcutta was still the cultural capital, the story refers to the time when courtesans were struggling to get rid of the Bai and Jaan surnames by finding a foothold in the Hindustani classical music. It was the time when the top male classical singers were addressed as ‘Pandit’ but the female stars were yet to be addressed as ‘Vidushis’.
Urmila seems to have emerged from a similar space and wants her daughter to rule the rarefied space of classical music. Unfortunately, Qala doesn’t have the mettle to make it. One day, the mother and daughter come across the performance of a boy from Solan. He sings Kabir in a soiree where Qala renders a classical bandish. The mother soon discovers that divinity sings through Jagan Batwal (Babil Khan) and decides to adopt the orphan. As expected, Qala develops a complex and goes into a shell. She feels that she could at least become a playback singer, but Urmila stops her and pushes Jagan instead. Like most of us, Qala is seeking validation from her mother who is in no mood to serve her daughter to the predators in show business. But Qala has different plans that put her on the path of self-destruction.
There are references to the legendary singing star of Bengali cinema Pahari Sanyal, lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, and ace photographer Homai Vyarwalla by naming characters after their first names or surnames that bring alive an era when music was organically made and female artists were rare in public space.
However, as the narrative progresses, a degree of artifice creeps into storytelling. Qala may be morally weak from the inside but her confrontation with herself is not. Too much styling becomes a distraction as well. The shutter sound of cameras and the gilt-edged frames are good to marvel at, but they do not fully transport us into a bygone era. It is like building a story by looking at a photo album, and becomes impassive very much like Triptii’s performance. She has an unmistakable spark, but looks a bit stiff for the challenges that the role demands. No such issues with Swastika, who like a cascading river, evokes an old-world charm. Amit Sial chips in as the predator in the skin of a well-wisher.
Meanwhile, Babil makes a confident debut. With deep eyes that resemble those of father Irrfan Khan, he shines as a singer who breathes music. When Qala tries to insert a thermometer into Jagan’s mouth, he almost breaks into an impromptu alaap. It is such magical moments that make Qala worth admiring.
Qala is currently streaming on Netflix