Anvitaa Dutt On Qala, Unhappy Endings And Writing Howdunits Instead Of Whodunits

'I want my films to be aesthetically made, so when they slice you, the pain will be greater,' says the writer-director
Anvitaa Dutt On Qala, Unhappy Endings And Writing Howdunits Instead Of Whodunits

Both films Anvitaa Dutt has written and directed so far are tragedies, with lonely women in large mansions, doomed to lives of thwarted ambitions and bleak endings. They’re a lot more fun to make, she insists. “Someone was telling me that it’s frightening how much I smile on set. I’m not stressed. The only thing I’m thinking of is what to eat for lunch.” Bulbbul, set during the Bengal presidency, is a Blood Moon-lit dark story about an emerging writer (Tripti Dimri) who fears she might never get to complete hers. That is, until a supernatural twist enables her to take charge of the narrative. An artist of a different kind appears in Qala, also released on Netflix, and seems fated to suffer the same stifling social norms. Qala (Tripti Dimri), is groomed from a young age to carry on her father’s legacy as a singer, but finds her position threatened with the arrival of Jagan (Babil Khan), a far better performer. As her drive to succeed intensifies, her mental health frays dangerously. Dutt spoke about crafting beautiful worlds that convey life’s ugly truths, deciding how much information to reveal to the audience and how Qala was shaped over 19 drafts:

Where did the idea of Qala come from?

I wish I knew. It was a combination of wanting to tell a mother-daughter story, of wanting to talk about the things that bother me and also the joy of wanting to set it in an era where theaters were big and music was beautiful. I like to set my films at a different time because I'm making the point that nothing has changed. I go back in time so that the messaging hits harder. I wrote the first draft of this film a decade ago. And I started working on it again during the pandemic. I wrote 19 drafts. 

Was there anything major that changed along the way or something that you wanted to refine?

The first draft is just writing down everything you think of. Then you get into, ‘What do I want to say? What's the best possible way to say it?’ I write in a non-linear way because my mind works like that, it jumps timelines. There are innumerable combinations of what can come when and what is revealed when, which you play around with. And then I keep asking my friends for feedback and rewriting.

Anvitaa Dutt On Qala, Unhappy Endings And Writing Howdunits Instead Of Whodunits
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All of writing is hard but the harder bits were taking away elements without which the story became a better version of itself. I use this story to drive home the point even when I talk about my lyrics: Someone once asked Michelangelo how he managed to carve out David from a single block of marble. And he said, ‘I took away everything that wasn’t David and David remained.’ So I tried to take away everything that would get in the way of the story. At one point, I had another character,  who I loved and was great fun. The interactions between her, Qala and Jagan were fantastic. When I was on my third draft, I realised that if I took her away, my story would become better, the film would become sharper. 

Most people make index cards and then write a draft. I’m the other way around — I write a draft and then I make cards. It was very easy to fall in love with Jagan because he’s the poorest and the least messed-up till he plunges into depression. Even then, his intent is pure. The dream is to be Jagan —  someone who does what they do for the sake of doing it,  because it’s beautiful. It’s like breathing. So my first drafts had more Jagan because I liked him so much. Then I realised that I was indulging myself and imposing myself on the story or the characters. So I pared a bit of Jagan away. The film had just enough Jagan for you to want more of him. That’s the whole point of his suicide, it gives you the feeling of a life cut short.

You've spoken about wanting to go back to a time when music was beautiful, which I find really interesting because while the music in the film is beautiful, the music industry itself is very ugly. Tell me about pitting these two contrasting ideas against each other.

There’s this idea that when the protagonist is crying, it has to be a rainy day — that only happens in films. In real life, something terrible might be unfolding in your life but it could be beautiful outside. The sun is shining, the sky is perfect. I like the juxtaposition of how tragedies could take place over an ordinary day. You know how weapons are really beautiful to look at? I want my films to be like that — aesthetically made, so when they slice you, the pain will be greater, the shock will be more intense. 

Tell me about the mother-daughter relationship in this film because Bollywood has traditionally painted motherhood as this noble vocation. We really haven't seen stories of maternal rejection.

That was the starting point of this story — that we’ve always sanctified the mother, whether it was Nirupara Roy or Reema Lagoo. We’ve always shown motherhood as this holy vocation. And we’ve always shown mother-son relationships. Even father-daughter relationships exist in that papa ki pari zone. I was talking to a psychoanalyst friend who said that most of the women in their 30s and 40s who are dealing with anxiety or depression can trace its roots back to their relationship with the family caregiver. It doesn’t mean that they were in abusive relationships, but it comes back to simple things like: How often were you touched with love? What was the nature of your punishment?

All this leads to women having mental health issues way into their 30s. That was another starting point for the film. I wanted to push and push and push the story to a place where I could make this point. Because if I just gave you a little bit of it, I might not have been able to make as strong a point about mental health and the repercussions of your conditioning, your upbringing, and the pressures of your childhood. It’s the pressure to be perfect or great at your studies or to be as well-behaved as the neighbor’s daughter. You are who you are and that should be enough — that’s a lesson I think needs to be talked about and more so for women. 

I want to come back to what you said about creating these beautiful worlds. Both your films are stunning, but there's also a very deliberate amount of artifice to them. Like the blood-red moon in Bulbbul and the world here. When you’re writing or envisioning these films, how do you decide on the amount of artifice? 

I don't set it out to make these worlds artificial or stagey. I instinctively make these stories fantastical because that's my conditioning. I've grown up on fantasy  and fanfiction. My mind is a hyper-imaginative one and I tend to see things a certain way. I'm that child who sees shapes in clouds. When I'm trying to make a point, I use magic realism. If I want to say that a woman’s mind is spiraling out of control, you will feel it more if I use hyper-real visuals than just relying on a performance. I feel a lot more emotion when I read fantasy because it works much harder on the truth of the character. The more fantastical the world, the more authentic the character has to be. All great fantasy writers from Ursula Le Guin to Neil Gaiman to HP Lovecraft do it so well. The otherworldliness of the setting becomes a powerful tool for driving home what you're trying to say. 

Anvitaa Dutt On Qala, Unhappy Endings And Writing Howdunits Instead Of Whodunits
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Let’s talk about the parallels between Bulbbul and Qala. They're both films about childhood dreams that have curdled. There is no happy ending for the woman in either of them. I know that you have ‘Once upon a time’ tattooed, but why is this dismantling of the fairytale so important to you?

I want to show you the worst-case scenario. I don't want to back down from it. I want to make my films relentless, because if I give you a reprieve, I might not be able to put across my point. I'm not even saying that five years down the line. I won't have a happy ending. I believe in happy endings. But to have a happy ending, you have to have agency, you have to be strong and you have to be happy with who you are. So I show you the worst-case scenario of: Okay, if I don’t feel these things, this is what will happen. So you walk away feeling shaken. I want girls to seek their joy. And to do that they have to avoid the thoughts that I'm showing. 

I also find it really interesting how you depict patriarchal systems in both movies because they also have these women who are trapped within them, they’re aware of this, but they also perpetuate it. The sister-in-law in Bulbbul, even Qala’s mom.

That’s true, well said. People make sweeping statements like, ‘Women are women’s first enemies.’ They're not, they are as much a product of their conditioning. Binodini (Paoli Dam) in Bulbbul is trapped, and what better way to wield power than to do to someone weaker than her? With Urmila, it’s the same thing. She is so frightened that she pushes her daughter to that extreme of fulfilling her dreams, to consolidate her position in society and in a man's world by creating a pedestal on which she must stand and be this perfect woman. Sure enough, she sees that she can achieve that with Jagan because it’s much easier to do it with a boy, that too one who is more gifted. So she topples one child off a pedestal and puts the other one on top. She’s not a villain. 'Victim' is such an ugly word but Urmila is as much the victim of an ugly world as Qala is. Both of them just act out in different ways. You can imagine how hard Urmila’s past must've been, and how she’s survived that. So you have to admire her, but she also perpetuates this intergenerational trauma with Qala. 

Where does the recurring motif of the moth come in?

It started with the image of a Rorschach inkblot test, which looks like a moth. It was supposed to split into thousands of moths. In the film, the image is meant to denote early psychosis or the deteriorating condition of someone's mental health. It was a telegraphic way of saying, ‘Her mind is not well.’ Some also believe that moths are symbols of death. They’re also drawn to destruction. There’s that saying, ‘Like a moth to flame.’ All of these meanings came together beautifully for me. I like moths, they’re like introverted butterflies. 

When you’re plotting a film like this, how do you decide how much information to give the audience? Like, for example, you see Jagan as a hallucination early on, and then when you see him in a flashback, you know something bad is going to happen to him and that’s why he's haunting her. Even in Bulbbul, there are all these hints about how she’s a chudail. 

I like howdunits more than whodunits. I believe that people are intelligent. I'm not trying to hide information from them. I just try to show them enough that they feel rewarded by their solving of the problem or who the character is. I want to give them the sense that something is not right, and then show them how and why it’s not right. I like to show you something in the first 10 pages of the script. So I’ll show you a demon and then humanise them. I’ll tell you what made this demon a demon. 

Even with the element of the mercury, for example. You've seen her mother telling her earlier on that mercury is bad for a singer's throat. And so you put the pieces together that she's put mercury in his drink and then later on there's the image of the mercury in her hand. Do you ever worry about maybe giving too much information to the audience? 

As I’m telling you the story, I’m also showing you certain things. I’m revealing my cards one by one. I don't like to spoonfeed but I’m also not lying to you. I'm more interested in telling you the mental and emotional journey of this character who is either finding her agency, losing or being thwarted for trying to find it. I'm spinning a yarn. I'm not trying to fool you or con you. I'm just trying to find the best possible way to tell you what is bothering me and I hope like hell that it bothers you too.

Anvitaa Dutt On Qala, Unhappy Endings And Writing Howdunits Instead Of Whodunits
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So let's talk about Jagan because we don't see a lot of his point of view in the film. He's someone who's comforting Qala when she's out in the snow and he gives her that bit of advice to sing for herself. But he is also someone who's largely indifferent when she's being passed over in favor of him.

In houses with sons, there are always these tiny things — like usko icecream khaani hai to sabke liye icecream aayegi. The son won't be aware that the daughter might be feeling bad or left out. In the world that I have set Qala in, it becomes normal for the boy to get their attention. In certain moments, he does become aware of how Urmila is behaving towards Qala, how she stops her from singing. He points out to Qala, “Ki tu ilzaam ke pehle hi dar jaati hai” so he is sensitive enough to have understood that. But I'm not making a hero of Jagan. He’s a visitor. Jagan is a God's child. He is truly an artist because he sings for himself. And that's the ideal. Men have that sense of entitlement, they know that ki achaa unki mehnat aur unki jo ability hai uske hisse ka unko milegaa. That's not something that women can take for granted. That doesn’t make men villains, that’s just how it is. They've been conditioned like that. 

To know who Jagan is you have to pay attention to the boat scene. After the song ends, we cut to a close up of cards being laid at the table. Jagan lays down a Queen, then another Queen and then a Joker. Jagan is that last card. He’s the card you don’t expect to find in your hand. He can be whatever the person who's holding him wants him to be. To Urmila, he’s a son. Qala sees him as someone who will make her lose. Urmila sees her as someone who will make her win. It depends on the cards they’re holding. 

Jagan is a very quiet, very still boy, while Babil is an energiser bunny. He starts a sentence and jumps 17 topics by the time he finishes it. So I used to start each of our workshop sessions with a meditation session so he could get into the mindset of being gentle and quiet.

So, something else I wanted to ask you about was the difference in the way you shot, sexual violence in Bulbbul and sexual coercion here, because in that film it was focused on Bulbul’s pain, but here during the balcony scene, you do get a shot of the music executive’s face first. Then, later on, we come back to what it must have been like for her.

If you think about it, both are scenes of rape. In Qala, consent isn’t given. In Bulbbul, it’s obvious force was used. In Bulbbul, I didn’t want to show the man's face because Mahendra was blinded by lust. I had to show the girl on which this brutality was being inflicted and the terror in her eyes. In this case, I wanted to show the monster in plain sight. His pleasure, his unexpected turn when he's supposed to be actually helping her and which is why I used the image of gargoyle. It’s the monster in plain sight. I wanted you to be like, ‘Oh my god, is this really happening?’ Because I don’t show you Qala in that shot. I wanted it to take a moment to register, for you to be like, ‘I can't believe this man is actually doing this.’ I wanted the penny to drop. Then you come back to her trying to stand up. They’re just different ways of driving home the same brutality.

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