Qala lives through the broken sighs she heaves amidst reluctant notes. She lives through the tremble of her lower lip and the anxious beads of sweat that race her tears to the finishing line of her jaw. One could almost hear her tears screaming to escape from the lump in her throat. Triptii Dimri’s Qala lives through the silent mayhem resting between the four strings of her tanpura. Her father’s absence is channelled by an overbearing mother who envisions reincarnating her father’s musical legacy through her. But Urmila, played by Swastika Mukherjee, does not make this a choice for her. Qala is the aftermath of a war she won against her twin fetus in her mother’s womb; the “better” of the two. It is no surprise that she came into her mother’s arms bearing the weight of two lives. Thereafter, her life is determined by shades of greys, like the clothes she wears in Dehradun’s winter.
Anvita Dutt twists the femme fatale figure into a labyrinth of ancestral angst in Qala. Qala is the perfect amalgam of artistic calibre and neglect. She is practically every woman, who tries and tries only to be shot down halfway through. Her mother, Urmila, fertilizes her distress like a seed she’s planted in Qala since her birth. Amit Trivedi and Ramesh Yadav render more than a little to effectualize Anvita Dutt’s catastrophically-poetic vision on screen. I do not want to delve into the flaws the movie could have and it’s not every day a pessimist opts to deviate from the chance for brutal scrutiny! It takes a solid piece of art to get us here. Qala leaves a bitter residue on the inner linings of our tongues as it concludes. I take it to be the venom of reality setting in.
Yadav’s art direction assists Dutt to symbolize the cold in the human heart with the dry landscape. In contrast to Bulbbul’s red forests, Yadav pulls out the blue and yellow contrast for Qala. Antiquity rests like some goth inside Swastika Mukherjee’s gaze. And where do I even begin with Babil Khan? ‘Like father, like son’, perhaps? I’m not sure if anybody has ever come to terms with Irrfan Khan’s demise. The privilege of watching his son on screen is so reminiscent of marvelling at a young Irrfan in Maqbool (2004). Babil inherits his father’s earnestness on screen. What a way to make a debut!
Dimri’s Qala is everything her Bulbul wasn’t. She ably catapults the character’s tremor into an uncertain villain. Her rendition of the role is postfeminist in many textures. She is both the damsel in distress and an involuntary seductress. The realization of her sexuality occurs at odd moments of desperation, in tune with the ritualistic absence of normalcy in her life. The ‘sleeping around to make your way forward’ trope so familiar with femme fatales comes into play in Qala as well. But it becomes postfeminist in its justification of the same. Postfeminism does not deem to moralize situations but certainly does complicate them. Women in patriarchy are not only driven to stew in their own filth for wanting the same as men but are also overburdened with the weight of being naïve victims. Their payback isn’t accompanied by heroic music and/or gratifying culminations. Instead, their revenge has to undergo scrutiny to check a few boxes before being granted the status of being acceptable. Qala isn’t out there kneading a story from scratch. She only finds air vents to breathe through in her tight-knit web of genes. That she (although hesitantly) chooses to grab the opportunities that come her way does not make her crude. What else does one expect of a woman who’s fighting for validation all her life? After all, she’s only taking cues from her mother’s antics. Both women set a priority towards which they gamble with all their might. For Urmila, the sense of validation came from coaching the perfect (adopted) son into a perfect musician. Qala, on the other hand, does not even have the illusion of choice her mother enjoys.
As her guilt and fear gnaw into her sanity bit by bit, Qala gives into the pressures of a victim’s guilt. Her deteriorating mental health and recurring hallucinations are testaments to the lack she constantly confronts in herself. They are manifestations of her feeble ordeal. When a woman, who is tired of fighting to no avail, chooses to give up, what shall we read it as; surrender, or a battle well fought? Qala is the madwoman in the attic. She is feminine anger personified. She does not have a personality or preference outside the diktats she’s been injected with. One could perceive her eventual suicide as freedom too, in this regard, for she was never her own individual; only fragments of Urmila’s manifestations. Not being able to live up to expectations is an integral part of masculinity studies. Qala’s inability to meet her mother’s expectations is postfeminist in that she bears the burden of her twin who never made it. While men are conventionally expected to fill in for the women and other genders that are absent from the mainstream, Qala here is forced to embark upon a man’s journey in a man’s world. But she is no romanticized warrior who heaves the burden in heroic stature. She’s prone to human follies and errors in judgment. And quite simply, she is neither black nor white, but entirely grey.