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In the bleak world of ‘Qala’, sisterhood offers a glimmer of hope

Anvitaa Dutt’s 'Qala' features a troubled protagonist striving for success amidst skewed gender equations in the early years of the Hindi film industry and finding solace in the support of other women

The world of Qala is resplendent and exquisite. Yet, there is no denying that it is a dark film.

Can a woman who is vulnerable, troubled and talented also be empathetic, manipulative and ambitious? The titular protagonist of Qala, writer-director Anvitaa Dutt’s sophomore film, is all these and more. Though deprived of the artistic validation that she seeks from her mother all her life, Qala Manjushree (Triptii Dimri) sets her eyes on winning the coveted Golden Vinyl award. But the odds are stacked against her, the biggest hurdle being her mother’s constant disapproval and reminders that Qala will never be known as a “pandit (maestro)”.

For all her frailties, Qala displays the rare strength to navigate many nightmarish experiences to reach her goal. Once she finds success and stardom, she extends her support and empathy to those around her — something she longed for while growing up. Yet, stardom can’t help Qala get rid of the self-doubt that’s entrenched within her.

The story of Qala’s troubled life and tumultuous mind is told by Dutt with breathtaking artistry — this is something viewers are familiar with from her 2020 movie Bulbbul. Set in the 1930s-40s, Qala’s journey — from being raised by a reputed vocalist in Himachal Pradesh to establishing herself as a sought-after playback singer of India — reflects the hustle and harassment that is part of the experience of women professionals as they strive for success.

But Qala is also about a society — which could even include one’s mother — that repeatedly asks a woman artiste to prove her worth. Reflecting the realities of the film industry during the pre-Independence era, Qala shows how women singers and musicians were looked down upon and referred to as ‘bai (courtesan)’. The rigid, age-old tradition often placed male artistes at the head of the pecking order.

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Even as Dutt holds up a mirror to the prevalent gender biases and unfair practices of the film industry, she deftly weaves in some wonderful what-if scenarios. Call it wishful thinking or fictional course correction, it’s soothing when Qala discovers “sisterhood” in the cut-throat world of the film business. In a beautiful tribute to India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla, a character modelled on her is seen photographing Qala for a magazine cover, with the two women sharing professional rapport and admiration for each other.

 

Breaking away from the film’s desolate tone, Dutt creates a support system for Qala. In the exploitative film world, she finds an ally in Majrooh (played by Varun Grover), who speaks the language of hope: “Daur badlega…daur ki yeh purani aadat hai (Time will change…that’s an old trick of time)”. There is music composer Naseeban Aapa (Tasveer Kamil), derided as a “bai (courtesan)”, but unfailingly protective of Qala and appreciative of her talent.

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It is only in recent years that people have started questioning the term “female director”, asking why women who direct films should not just be referred to as “directors”. Or, for that matter, why any woman professional needs a prefix signifying her gender. Dutt, however, transports this contemporary discussion to the pre-Independence era. When advised by a filmmaker to let go of her “woman secretary” Sudha and employ a man instead, Qala objects: “Why can’t Sudha be called only ‘secretary’?” While time travel cannot be the solution to the skewed gender power dynamics that continue to trouble us today, the scene does make one wonder how different things would be now if we had raised these questions long ago.

The world of Qala is resplendent and exquisite. Yet, there is no denying that it is a dark film. Some may find it darker than Bulbbul, which was a fable-like tale of the titular protagonist avenging the abuse and oppression inflicted on her and other women. Qala is also a film where silence speaks and the mind is in constant turmoil as the protagonist tries to cope with abuse, rejection, a sense of guilt and self-doubt. She reminds one of Nina (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan (2010) and Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) in Blonde (2022). Both artistes — though Nina is fictional and Monroe is one of the greatest icons of the 20th century — had to battle inner demons and trauma of abusive relationships.

Dutt refers to Dimri, who also played the titular character in Bulbbul, as her “muse”. They have co-created two outstanding female characters, who are beautiful but broken. These characters rise above their fragility and the patriarchal forces that try to pin them down and accomplish the impossible. Through their remarkable collaboration, the Dutt-Dimri duo has also shown how long-lasting sisterhood is built — with understanding, camaraderie, and, by believing in each other —and how it can influence the stories we choose to tell.

alaka.sahani@expressindia.com

First published on: 02-12-2022 at 14:19 IST
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