Qala Review: An Enchanting Mix of Method and Madness

Director Anvitaa Dutt’s new film is streaming on Netflix
Qala Review: An Enchanting Mix of Method and Madness

Director: Anvitaa Dutt
Writer: Anvitaa Dutt
Cast: Triptii Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, Amit Sial, Varun Grover

Qala opens with a hero. Her name is Qala Manjushree (Triptii Dimri), and she has a voice. She is the nation’s leading playback singer. Having just won the Golden Vinyl in the late 1930s, Qala is seated in a roomful of reporters. Before taking questions, however, she requests the sole female photographer in the room to capture her moment. She makes the men wait, posing for the lady, who in turn reacts like this isn’t the first time Qala’s picked her. Later, at a recording session, the film director wonders why she has a female secretary unlike other stars. Qala gently chides him for using a gender prefix – "you can just say secretary, no?” – while rehearsing with her music director, also a woman, and her queer lyricist. Her breakout song years ago was about the playful politics of consent, centered on a heroine (a cameo by producer Anushka Sharma) who croons about an entitled lover unwilling to understand that “no means no”. 

Everything about Qala’s career suggests that she is the voice of the marginalised – a trailblazing girlboss determined to use her privilege and push for equality in a deeply chauvinist system. Her own path to success has been troubled. So her inner strength is now in service to others like her, those who strive to break the glass ceiling in an industry averse to short vocal cords and long umbilical cords. Maybe, while she’s at it, she might channel this power and punish all the villains of her journey – a heartless mother, a male rival, a sexual predator. Perhaps she might avenge the brutality of being a woman. She is a hero, after all. 

In many ways, appreciating Anvitaa Dutt’s haunting Qala merits a look at her haunted directorial debut, Bulbbul (2020). One is the spiritual sequel to the other. Bulbbul, set in the Bengal Presidency of 1901, tells the (love) story of a mysterious landlady who moonlights as a vengeful, man-eating ‘chudail’. She nurses a chilling past by day and preys on male offenders by night. Flashbacks convey that this former child bride was subjected to years of abuse by her husband and his family. The goth-horror period tone almost wills her supernatural transformation – into a creature worthy of her fantasy surroundings. The film follows M. Night Shyamalan’s “the broken are the more evolved” superhero motif. It’s as though the story finds solace in the mythical after being disillusioned by man; the vigilante demon is the consequence – the afterlife – of all that suppressed trauma and rage. At one point in Qala, her lyricist friend, Majroo (Varun Grover), hints at something similar – he mentions that her silence might trigger a “sailaab” (flood) one day. 

But the triumph of Qala is that it remains tragically human. The sailaab is more life than afterlife. It’s more Black Swan than Bulbbul. Qala’s transformation is not supernatural but natural – into an anti-creature at odds with the film’s fantasy surroundings. Flashbacks convey her years of suffering and abuse, but the only demons here are internal. We see not the consequence, but the toll of all that trauma. There is no chudail, no vigilantism; just a crisis of conscience. It’s just Qala and the voices in her head. If anything, her feminism emerges as a manner of doubling down on the toxic agency that she embraced as a teenager yearning for the validation of her mother. It becomes her way of purifying the womanhood she once weaponised – her body, soul, moral core – to reach the top. Slowly but steadily, her veneer cracks. Her image fades. Her arc addresses the callousness of a culture that often trivialises the mental health of celebrities as the “pressures of fame”. We blame it on something as public as fame, but movies like Qala remind us that stardom is only the medium. The catalyst can be something as private – as achingly ordinary – as heartbreak or familial discord. 

To Dutt’s credit, the striking visual language of Qala expresses the anatomy of madness. It feels like part of the narrative detail, as though the story gets consumed by man despite being on the brink of the mythical. Amit Trivedi’s best soundtrack since Manmarziyaan (2018) combines with Meenal Agarwal’s production design and Siddharth Diwan’s camerawork to create a psychological palette that works on multiple levels. It’s not just the artful symbolism – like Qala’s Calcutta apartment reflecting the greens of envy and blues of faded masculinity, her songs playing out like melancholic pleas to be heard, or her snowy childhood home replicating the starkness of mental isolation. It’s also the way Qala thinks. Unlike Bulbbul, it’s her mind that determines the sensory tone of this film. The world she sees is very different from the one we do, almost like she’s reimagining the aesthetic of the black-and-white era to renovate her own sanity. She longs for the indoor colours to be beautiful – and the symmetry to be poetic – so that it hides the ugliness inside her. Her obsession is softened by wall mirrors and moths around flames. But when she’s outside, her strings vanish. The sky turns dark and cloudy on the day she compromises her dignity. She hallucinates when the press hounds her for an interview on the street. The snow evokes not just her mindscape but her misdeeds too. A top-angle shot reveals her body crumpled at the center of an icy hedge maze in her yard, foreshadowing the role of a mercury maze in the plot. 

There are other lovely touches, too. Qala, like the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, is fondly termed ‘didi’ (sister). Except to her, it also sounds like an accusation, because it’s being a sister that Qala has failed at. Her mother Urmila Devi’s (Swastika Mukherjee) resentment stems from the fact that Qala survived at the cost of a twin brother in the womb. A son that, the woman hoped, would do justice to their family’s classical legacy. When Urmila adopts a talented orphan named Jagan (Babil Khan), who becomes Qala’s stepbrother of sorts, her jealousy shapes the story. Then there’s the choice of period – pre-Independence India – that’s just about cosmetic enough to convey that social shackles like patriarchy are timeless. The writing isn’t afraid to sound a bit contemporary – for instance, when Majroo uses a MeToo-adjacent line to comfort Qala – in its pursuit of cultural fluidity.

The cast bleeds into the film, in all the right ways. Swastika Mukherjee is eerily unsettling as the parent that subverts the Indian father-son dynamic. The late Irrfan’s son, Babil Khan, has a stirring screen presence; his face is lit in part to invoke some of his father’s most memorable roles. You keep looking for his Jagan to give Qala a bigger reason to hate him, but his only crime is that he’s a true artist; even the camera thinks so. Triptii Dimri is strangely persuasive as Qala herself. Her performance brings to mind a sheltered innocence that one usually associates with a Janhvi Kapoor character. Qala’s emotions are stunted, just like her sense of cruelty. Her imposter syndrome is literal. Her personality is derived from pieces of the people around her – evident in how she imitates her mother while seducing a man, or even the way she steals Jagan’s words to explain her condition to a doctor. There are shades of Devdas (2002) in her fraught relationship with Urmila Devi – a mother-daughter story that wears the drama of an unrequited love story. 

At times, it appears like the film’s internet-age writing is taunting Qala for being fragile – for being too childish to allow for a supernatural twist. But Dutt’s script implies that a woman’s agency need not only be restricted to the act of having control; it can also be defined by the freedom to lose control. Qala’s sound is, for better or worse, a phonetic subset of being unsound. While watching Bulbbul, I remember observing that Hindi cinema is biased towards performative male breakdowns. Stories too often stage sadness – rather than madness – as the cornerstone of female heartache. Qala rectifies that. Because it is not reluctant to admit that one condition is simply the sequel to the other.

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