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Qala movie review: The stately beauty of Tripti Dimri-Babil Khan film works against it

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Qala movie review: Babil Khan reminds you of his father, the late, brilliant Irrfan, because of some of his features that he has inherited, as well as, evidently, the acting gene. But it is equally evident that Babil is his own actor.

qala review 1200Qala movie review: The film stars Tripti Dimri, Babil Khan, and Swastika Mukherjee among others.

It looks like I’ve seen the most gorgeously-shot film of the year: each frame of Anvita Dutt’s sophomore feature ‘Qala’ is like an impressionist painting. The background is perfect, whether it is the snowy mountains of Himachal, or the warm, jewelled tones of a Calcutta night, with a boat gliding down the Hooghly bridge. The eye takes in the meticulousness with which the whole is constructed, and then comes to the characters in the foreground. And that may just be the thing that defines, and impacts our viewing of the film, which is about a beautiful young singer trying to find her voice, set in the late 30s, early 40s pre-Independence India.

Qala Manjushree (Tripti Dimri) grows up in a large Gothic mansion in a tiny Himachal hamlet, trying to please her mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee). That is the defining characteristic of her life, even as she takes her first tentative steps into background singing for films, going on to become as popular as the leading ladies she sings for. But whatever she does, whether winning a coveted award, or holding court in front of a group of fawning reporters, or signing autographs, she cannot shake off the feeling of inadequacy which has plagued her, her whole life. Does Qala have any ‘kala’, or is everything a figment of her fevered imagination?

The film is a rendering of a troubled, toxic mother-daughter relationship. More than active dislike, it is her mother’s constant choosing to unsee her which unsettles Qala as a child, and turns her into a tremulous people-pleaser as an adult, showing up in her dealings with the predatory music composer (Amit Sial), and her own inability to savour her success. The appearance of Jagan (Babil Khan), an orphan who sings like an angel, and Urmila’s absolute devotion to him, adds to her isolation. Is she really, as her disciplinarian mother puts it, ‘akal mein zero, shakal mein zero, talent mein zero’? Or is it just the older woman’s pent-up frustration coming out? If Qala is not seen or heard, who is she really? Does she even exist?

There’s a lot to like in the film. An intricate map of feelings which do not follow the conventional mother-daughter route is not something we see too often in our cinema; Dutt’s ability to create complex, full-bodied emotions, which we saw in ample measure in ‘Bullbul’, is wonderful. One of the most evocative sequences, amongst the several there are in the film, is when Qala’s first public outing, which goes off well enough, is pipped by the full-throated Jagan, who has been raised in the local gurdwara. The guru (Swanand Kirkire) of the Manjushree gharana tries to do a balancing act, but you can see who the real ‘waaris’ of the family ‘viraasat’ is.

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The music and the singing is quite lovely: both Dimri and Khan look as if they are actually singing, not just mouthing the words. The strongly feminist touches — a composer who goes by the name of Naseeban doles out more affection to the nervous young singer in her brief professional interactions than her mother has in her whole life; a female secretary (Oak) is a solid ally and companion–fills the film with warmth, a welcome break from the icy hallucinations that plague Qala. And of course, there are patronising men telling women how they feel: ‘aap socha band kar dijiye’, says a doctor (Banerjee) to Qala, who is getting increasingly on edge. If you are a woman, you will have vapours, it’s nothing. Of course.

And the misogynistic atmosphere of the music studios is also well done, where female singers are derisively termed ‘bais’ or courtesans. A supportive lyricist named Majrooh (Varun Grover) is the only one who keeps up Qala’s drooping spirits. Jealousy, anger, sadness, oppression roil together, coming to a boil.

But despite all these moving parts, the film doesn’t lift off the screen as much as it should have. Its stately beauty works against it, and keeps demanding more attention than the characters. The other, equally strong reason is Qala’s one-note tragic mien which she is made to maintain through most of the film: you want her to be able to smile (there are a couple of occasions when she does, but they don’t last too long), to be able to breathe, but the camera stays in tight close-up as the tears track down her face. Dimri is invested all the way in her role, and is never not eye-catching, especially when she is being pushed into the corners of her unquiet mind, but comes off too held-in. After a point, the moroseness becomes too much of a muchness.

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Also, for a film so careful about its detailing, some of the choices are confusing. There are specific mentions of a few names (a well-known female photographer who was making a name for herself at that time, Indira, Bapu, Solan, Shimla, Calcutta), and yet there is little corresponding specificity of other characters. Our eyes are drawn towards the scarlet nails of ‘Majrooh’ (Grover, in a sparkling cameo) when he comes on first, but the significance of the nail paint is never shared, not even in a sly hint, and those nails are plain in almost every other scene he shows up in.

Mukherjee, who does a good job as the un-maternal mother, wears a very specific kind of heavy tribal silver jewellery in the mountains, which she completely divests herself of, when she is in the city. And again, you wonder about the costumery and the lack of it, without anything to go on: you also wonder about her too-sudden change of heart when things are drawing to a close. How did the switch get thrown, especially when it comes to someone who’s harboured an implacable life-long antagonism? And then, there’s the jerk you feel when you hear too-contemporary sounding lines like: ‘does it look like I care?’ or ‘all good, nothing to worry’. Did people speak like this in that era?

For a film which is so much about its female characters, it is the men in much smaller roles — Sial, Kochchar — who stand out. The debutant Babil Khan is pitch perfect: of course, he does remind you of his father, the late, brilliant Irrfan, because of some of his features that he has inherited, as well as, evidently, the acting gene. But it is equally evident that Babil is his own actor. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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And, despite those niggles, ‘Qala’ will leave you with stunning sights and sounds you can savour, and things you can think about.

Qala movie cast: Tripti Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, Amit Sial, Girija Oak, Sameer Kochchar, Swanand Kirkire, Varun Grover, Abhishek Banerjee
Qala movie review: Anvita Dutt
Qala movie rating: 2.5 stars

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 12:45 IST
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