A Retrospective: The Curious Case of Qala

Sifting through last year's Hindi cinema, a re-examination of Qala and its potential.


Now that the dust has well and truly settled on 2022, and we wait poised for a summer of big Hindi film releases (although probably the biggest, Pathaan, has passed us), it’s becoming clear that last year was a turning point for the industry. It’s no secret that Bollywood has been floundering over the past couple of years, with its usual audiences taken in by new options enabled by streaming services, including more cinematic television and non-Hindi cinema. But after dozens of failed, or, at least, underperforming big releases, 2022 was the year that cemented the industry’s subversive response to both the pandemic lull and a change in the viewing culture. Whether all of these experiments worked is, of course, up to debate, but the range of alternative Hindi cinema taking the place of the mainstream is undeniable: from a surprisingly tender, queer drama (Badhaai Do) to a werewolf horror-comedy (Bhediya), to the mind- and time-bending, latest gambit by Anurag Kashyap (Dobaraa), to even the big Sanjay Leela Bhansali release (Gangubai Kathiawadi) being significantly distinct from his recent work, a film about a sex-worker turned brothel owner and activst, which, despite the nation’s notoriously taboo culture around sex, caught the public’s imagination. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In the midst of this changing, broadening industry–at the beginning of the last month of the year–we saw a release which could only be possible because of the freedom offered by OTT platforms, a film which wouldn’t have been made just five years ago: Qala. It just isn’t your typical theatre-fare, and neither does it fit in with any of the Hindi, indie cinema from the 2010s–primarily because of the scale of its locations, production design, and music. But along with celebrating the path that films like Qala are helping pave, I think it’s worth exploring why this particular experiment didn’t work, despite how much I adored watching it. 

Let’s start with its director, Anvitaa Dutt. It’s hard not to like her. She’s one of the most promising rising stars of Hindi cinema, who after paying her dues for years as a lyricist and screenwriter, finally got to direct her own film, Bulbbul, in 2020. Deeply rooted in Indian mythology, history, and storytelling, the film used its fantastical, gothic trappings to flip the table on the genre, almost like a more artful version of Shraddha Kapoor’s witch from Stree. Both Qala and it are period films about women set in Kolkata. Together, they make clear Dutt’s single-minded, original voice, one which seems untainted by compromise. While Bulbbul told a story of feminine strength from suffering, Qala tells of stardom from feminine suffering. The film follows the titular character’s rise as a singer in the Hindustani classical and Hindi film worlds. However, it’s far more interested in Qala’s relationship with herself, and her mother. 

But for all its unapologetic centring around women, it confuses social commentary with sordid suffering. There’s no doubt that women bear the brunt of indignities–be it in the period, the industry, or their families, but in keeping nothing in the film but those, Qala loses out on a complexity, of both character and drama, that could have made it perfect. Last year, there were two other notable films about complex women, with complex relationships (Jalsa and Darlings). Although neither were even close to the sheer aesthetic beauty of Qala, their lead characters were fuller, faced with more choices, and given moments to open up to the audience. By this, I don’t mean emotional soliloquies but rather the bits of the everyday, the seemingly banal specificities of loose words and actions that ground us as real people. You could make the argument that Qala, unlike the other two films, is about tragic obsession, single-mindedness. But for a sense of that, we first need to get a sense of what exists around it, and bring obsession into colour by contrast. What obsession looks like is the first question, the second is how you make us feel it, effectively.

But Qala almost does that too, purely through visuals, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s truly a gorgeous film, with a rare eye for depth in composition, an expressionistic colour palette, and little visual motifs amid immaculate sets and backdrops. For all her experience as a writer, Dutt–aided by cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and production designer Meenal Agarwal–seems to have found her real calling here. It’s all in the details. For example, in films in which characters are haunted by figures from the past, it’s almost trite to see them as ghosts or visions, but with just a touch of the surreal, of an actual interplay between reality and dream, this, too, is made inventive. 

Now, you might be questioning my critique of the film’s deep sadness; after all, there is more than enough literature about tortured geniuses who are men, and their sorrows never exclude the work from being considered great. In fact, Qala itself is loosely based off one such film, 1984’s Amadeus. But it might be better to bring up another film that Qala has obvious thematic and visual references to: Black Swan. The difference between the two projects is that in Darren Aronofsky’s film about a tortured ballet dancer, played by Natalie Portman, we see her slowly descend into madness. We hold her hand as she spirals down her arc. In Qala, our titular character is as troubled at the beginning as she is at the end. It’s almost a waste of Triptii Dimri to see her do nothing but sniffle. That sounds mean, but it comes out of a genuine respect for the performances in the film. Both Swastika Mukherjee and Babil Khan play their roles earnestly, but you can’t help but feel that we’re missing out. Another point of comparison to a more nuanced mother-daughter relationship, one still fraught with expectations and exploitation, can be seen in The Queen’s Gambit. The roles given to the women in that film allow them the range to be truly human, to be evocative of real experiences, which are rarely just one note. 

Although I don’t like harping on about plots, I have to mention a reveal that’s meant to be central to the drama that you’re just sitting and expecting the entire film. It’s not that the film suffers too much because of it, but it certainly doesn’t gain anything either. Again here, with a more complicated relationship between Qala and her mother’s favoured adopted orphan, it could have dug into our skins.

But maybe you agree with Rahul Desai when he says that the film is about women’s “freedom to lose control”. Maybe you see Qala’s contention with the world around her as inspiring (although I doubt you will find it insightful). Maybe the music–a beautiful set of arrangements that make you wish for more Hindi film music to be actually integrated with the film–is enough to take you away. But even if all of it–the well-crafted visuals, ambitious intentions, original voice, and great music–isn’t enough for you, you won’t regret watching it. 

Qala’s a curious film, a welcome change, and I hope there are more like it, films that will withstand the impending dominance of big budget Hindi films, that might have just been truly set-off by Pathaan earlier this year. Hopefully, directors like Dutt will continue to hone their distinctive voices in the current film and telvision landscape which, thanks to films like this, has proven to be wide enough to handle more.

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Kanishk Devgan
Kanishk Devgan
Kanishk Devgan's work spans prose, poetry, satire and short films. They wrote the screenplay for the Filmfare nominated short film, Suttabaazi, and as a film critic, has over 40 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. For more, follow @yikeskandy