A haunting tale of validation and penance

Story: Assessing the complex mother-daughter dynamic and inner conflict, Qala is an intoxicating juggernaut of self-doubt, destruction and road to atonement.

Review: Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz is back with director Anvitaa Dutt after Bulbbul (2020) to continue their initiative of backing women telling women stories. The film retains Triptii Dimri in the front seat with a solid support of Swastika Mukherjee and debutant Babil Khan, son of the late Irrfan Khan. A fictitious period drama about a playback singer, Qala treads an unfamiliar, unspoken path in terms of relationships. It looks beyond the obvious to explore the underlying complexities of a mother-daughter equation, a rare sight in Hindi cinema. The latter has either overlooked or villainised the conflict for the gallery. Qala dares to observe the raw, even ugly insides of a seemingly normalised relationship with heart aching longing and regret at its core.

The slow burn tragedy that hits a crescendo in the climax without making a noise is a haunting psychological drama set in the 1930’s and 40’s with a musical backdrop. Qala (Triptii Dimri) as a young girl from Himachal is hopeful to live up to the reputation and talent of her illustrious family of classical singers. “Naam ke aagey Pandit hona chahiye, naam ke peeche bai nahi”, says her mother (Swastika Mukherjee) sternly, ensuring her daughter is aware of the weight of expectations she carries. The impressionable daughter wants to win over her taskmaster mother and craves for her validation. The mother however is captivated by the divine energy in Jagan’s (Babil) voice. She bestows him with mother-son affection and chooses him (an outsider) to be a deserving successor of her family’s legacy. Qala is advised to get married and be with her husband instead of pursuing a career in film music as those days it wasn’t a place for respected women. Qala views it as a case of patriarchy, sexism and unfair treatment meted out to women. She feels she is unnoticed by her mother while the mother sees through her daughter’s insecurities and strongly believes that it’s only fair to empower Jagan who is more talented. Qala resorts to questionable ways to accomplish her dream but it comes at a price. She is haunted and traumatised by her past.

The story steadily opens a Pandora ’s Box of secrets as it moves along, shuttling between past and present, remorse and anger, love and jealousy. It closely observes the tension and twisted mother-daughter dynamic and unravels like an emotional horror. The beauty of Anvitaa Dutt’s storytelling and writing lies in its world creation and her narrative of alternating viewpoints. You witness a mother-daughter dance of psychological warfare as Qala’s ambition clashes with her mother’s disdain. Amit Trivedi’s classical music lies at the heart of the film and is instrumental in taking the story forward. Other than Anvita, the songs have been beautifully penned by Amitabh Bhattacharya, Kausar Munir, Swanand Kirkire and Varun Grover. Singers Sireesha Bhagavatula and Shahid Mallya who have sung for the lead characters do a fine job.

Light is skilfully used in scenes to maintain intrigue. Qala’s childhood home in the mountains and her adult life in Kolkata, the set design, costumes and colour palette are striking. Siddharth Diwan (Cinematography) and Meenal Agarwal (Production Designer) deserve a special mention for building a world that exudes hypnotic unsettling energy and heartache. While the pace feels sedentary on several occasions, the inner turmoil and pain finds an outlet even in silence.

Last but not the least; all the three lead actors transport themselves to the poignant world of love, ambition and deceit. Triptii Dimri is gorgeous in the retro avatar and effective in parts but noticeably limited in her expressions. The beautiful Swastika Mukherjee is perfectly restrained and powerful as the mother. There’s a certain earnestness to Babil, something his celebrated father exuded. He shows glimpses of what he can deliver as an actor and the future definitely looks bright for him.

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