Qala (2022) Review: Set in pre-Independence India, Qala (played by Triptii Dimri) is one of India’s popular contemporary playback singers. She is introduced in the film holding the Golden Vinyl and flocked by reporters, accolades, and flashing cameras. Qala is a star whose definition of stardom is equivalent to returning home as a tired soul and being greeted at the door by her mother. She shines like a diamond in her metal-colored organza sarees paired with minimal jewelry. However, the narrative unravels the past, and we learn how much pressure and conditioning this diamond has had to go through, right from the moment of her birth (when she defeated her twin brother in her mother’s womb) to her entry into the music industry (when she kneeled before a famous music producer), to reach the position she occupies in the public eye. Behind the garb of a star, Qala is struggling with her mental health.
The film Qala (2022), in the tradition of Khoya Khoya Chand (2007), starring Soha Ali Khan as Nikhat, traces the progression of the titular singer’s deteriorating mental health while simultaneously focusing on her story of rising to stardom.
Anvita Dutta, who stepped into Bollywood with her directorial debut, Bulbbul (2020), started a conversation around feminist storytelling and the importance of the female protagonist in cinema. Qala harps on similar themes. For example, as an artist, Qala recognizes the rampant chauvinism in the world around her, opportuning the singular female photographer over the men waiting in the room to click her picture first. She also opts for a ‘female’ secretary and chides anyone who questions her choice. While she finds her strongest allies in the women around her, her past has been shaped by the patriarchally conditioned mindset of her mother, Urmila Manjushree (played by Swastika Mukherjee), who takes the drastic (but easiest) decision to sacrifice Qala in marriage in order to free herself from responsibilities and help another young artist, Jagan (played by Babil Khan), find his footing in the music industry.
In one of my favorite scenes from the film, when Qala, her mother, Jagan, and a famous Mr. Sanyal are taking a boat ride along the Ganges in Kolkata on a dreamy moonlit night, Qala decides to sing a couplet with Mr. Sanyal, but her mother immediately gestures her to stop and asks Jagan to carry on with the song instead. Dimri is a fine actress. The pain of this constant rejection from her mother laces her facial expression throughout the film. It perfectly contrasts her glowing confidence in front of the reporters. However, the edges of these contrasting personalities in Qala are blurred so that even when her Black Swan-inspired moment in the film fails to switch her expression, I felt a pang of disappointment.
Jagan’s character sketch lacks depth; therefore, Babil Khan’s debut performance sadly feels half-baked. Nevertheless, his prowess as an actor shines through only in one scene where he is in conversation with Qala in her room, talking about heartbreak and shedding silent tears. Swastika Mukherjee as Urmila brings out sweet but obnoxious villainy, yet the caricature risks losing your interest.
Dutt’s portrayal of Qala’s debilitating mental health is powerful and poetic, bringing the snow from her homeland inside the recording studio, especially complemented by the lack of background noise. Dutt also draws metaphors through everyday objects like mirrors, mercury, and mazes. The production design has an old-school charm, making it a visually immersive cinematic experience, but nothing, except a half-built Howrah Bridge, circumscribes the period the film is set in – no ripples of the ongoing independence movements, partition, or riots.
Qala stands out, most importantly, because of the symphony created by a plethora of talented musicians and lyricists from the industry. In a day and age where Bollywood music is fueled with remixes, Amit Trivedi creates magic in this album. I cannot pick one favorite song from this film; listening to this album on a loop for the nth time now. Qala’s break-out song featuring a playful commentary on the ‘no means no’ statement with an Anushka Sharma cameo was one of the more pleasant surprises in the film. However, it is one thing to create gorgeous music and another to perform it well in a film. It is the latter where the film falters for me. Neither Dimri nor Khan seems to perform the songs with the passionate rigor of a seasoned musician, the kind that Ritwik Bhowmick as Radhe Rathod in Bandish Bandits (2020 – ) and Aditya Modak as Sharad Nerulkar in The Disciple (2021) displayed in their respective performances.
Qala doesn’t promise to enchant you. It only sensitizes you about the struggles of a female singer trying to establish herself in the music industry, making you wonder whether the struggles of female singers continue to be synonymous in this day and age. You can stream Qala on Netflix now.