Nearly every problem with writer-director Anvitaa Dutt’s debut film Bulbbul could be felt, all at the same time, in one scene. Framed from the perspective of Rahul Bose’s villainous Thakur, it culminated with a burst of graphic violence inflicted upon Triptii Dimri’s titular naïf. The odd move to present a woman’s brutal beatdown from the male abuser’s point-of-view aside, the scene remains memorable for Dutt’s aesthetic choices. Her decision to shoot the Thakur in slow-motion, for instance, and cutting away occasionally to capture painterly blood-spatter was excruciating to watch, and not for the right reasons.
The scene literally glamourised violence, and on a subtextual level, played into archaic rape-revenge tropes where women are allowed to blossom only after being brutalised first. But more than anything else, it represented Dutt’s tendency to sacrifice story and character at the altar of superficial beauty. Perhaps validated by Bulbbul’s generally positive reception, she chose to double down on that aesthetic — both visually and thematically — in her recent second feature, Qala.
It’s a film that romanticises female suffering, presenting it not as a horrid truth of patriarchal society, but as a rite of passage instead. Qala, the character, is a mentally ill musician who murders an innocent boy in a sustained display of jealousy, and yet, the movie portrays her as a tragic heroine. In doing so, it not only undermines her struggles, but also reduces the story of a real historical figure to basically a plot device.
The film is essentially a series of distraction tactics — immaculate frames, pretty faces in those immaculate frames, and grand music surrounding immaculate frames with pretty people in them. Your attention is repeatedly directed towards Qala’s lush cinematography and soundscape, and not towards the characters that they’re supposed to service.
The most egregious example of this is a third-act scene in which Qala is forced to perform oral sex on a sleazy record executive. It’s constructed in such a disjointed manner that for a moment, it’s unclear what’s even happening. We watch as the honcho, played by Amit Sial, expresses ecstasy, seemingly standing by himself on a moonlit rooftop. We don’t see the act in graphic detail, but we don’t need to. A suggestive shot of Qala being pushed to her knees would’ve helped, though. Because as it stands, the shot briefly makes it look like Amit Sial is peeing on a gargoyle. Some seconds later, we see Qala rise to her feet, wiping mouth in disgust. But Dutt’s frame is so crowded that there’s a good chance that you, like me, will be distracted by the unfinished Howrah Bridge in the background instead of focusing on Qala’s face.
The problem here is with the lighting; Dimri’s face is in the foreground, lit by a nearby flashing livewire. But instead of using these flashes as an excuse to obscure the background, the light (and consequently our attention) is distributed evenly, illuminating both the bridge and the protagonist’s face. It looks pretty, sure; but it’s self-defeating.
Beautiful cinematography isn’t the same thing as good cinematography. It’s understandable for an audience that only watches Marvel blockbusters and Kantara to not know the difference. But it’s especially annoying when filmmakers appear to be confused by this as well. Empty visuals alone can’t tell a story. Sometimes, the ugliest frames are the most evocative. But Dutt tends to direct in tableaus; it’s as if she wants every moment of her movies to be paused, admired, and then used as a wallpaper. This is how you end up admiring the CGI backdrop in a shot meant to invoke disgust.
Now, compare this to a similar scene in Blonde, another recent Netflix film ostensibly also about a young woman’s troubled relationship with her mother, framed against her rise and fall in the world of entertainment. Much has been said about Blonde’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe, and whether at all it was exploitative. But consider the scene in which she is made to perform a similar sexual act on John F Kennedy. It was horrifying to watch, mainly because of director Andrew Dominik’s visual choices.
Star Ana de Armas was framed in an extreme closeup, her eyes locked with yours; no Washington Monument in the background, no nothing. JFK remained out of focus, even on the couple of brief occasions that he appeared on screen. The film’s provocative perspective was resolute; it wasn’t going to abandon Marilyn at her lowest. Both Bulbbul and Qala, on the other hand, not only centre the men, but make the abuse of women breathtakingly beautiful to look at.
When you peel away the film’s outer layers, it becomes clear that Dutt doesn’t think much of her audience. Her observations about feminism are tired at best, and counterproductive at worst. In Bulbbul, she presented the titular character’s transformation into a man-eating witch as a plot twist, even though it was obvious from the beginning that she was the mysterious murderess all along. And in Qala, the death of Babil Khan’s character by slow poisoning is also designed as a massive reveal, despite the film having telegraphed this plot development ages ago. Further disjointedness can be felt when Babil Khan is given a grand introductory scene early in the film, mere moments after he’d already been introduced. What happened there?
And then there are the obvious acts of plagiarism, which, for some reason, Dutt makes more conspicuous by squeezing into one surreal sequence. It’s the one that reminded people who watched the trailer of Darren Aronofsky’s similarly themed modern masterpiece Black Swan. Distracted by the visuals, you might not notice that the background music in this scene has been lifted from another Netflix title, David Fincher’s serial killer show Mindhunter. They didn’t even bother to alter it all that much; they sat with their fingers crossed, hoping that you wouldn’t notice.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.