Investigating the Mad Woman Trope in Anvita Dutt’s Film Qala

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A still from the Film “Qala”

Anvita Dutt’s directorial venture, ‘Qala,‘ is a multi-layered period film. Its beauty lies in the combination of exquisite visuals and a compelling story. While the focus is on the characters, it also delves into the untold stories that unfold within us.

Set in the 1930’s, the movie opens with Qala (played by Tripti Dimri) proudly displaying her award for singing to a swarm of media persons. It is interesting to note that the flashes of the camera almost create a blackout which we later understand to be a foreshadow of her dark past. 

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks. Dutt beautifully visualises the haunting subconscious mind of Qala, juxtaposing it with her present. Visiting her childhood, we learn that she was born with a twin brother who couldn’t survive. Urmila, her mother and an erstwhile singer (played by Swastika Mukherjee) was extremely upset about this.

The price for growing up in a patriarchal society is high for women. Hence, Urmila is too hard on Qala and pressurises her to become a distinguished singer. She goes on to say ‘Naam ke pehle Pandit lagna chahie, Naam ke baad bai nahi.’ She is always disappointed with Qala and never caresses her. Urmila’s conditioning and her firm nature isolates Qala and she eventually goes into a loop of low esteem and desperation. On the lookout of validity and love from her mother, she takes some extreme steps.

In comes Jagan (played by Babil Khan), an orphan boy with a soulful voice and outstanding singing capabilities. Urmila’s love and support for Jagan hurts Qala even more. Her urge to achieve something big and surpass everyone intensifies to a level where the lines between right and wrong get blurred. Eventually, Qala manages to reach the pinnacle of success as a singer, but at what cost? 

Certain motifs such as snow, maze, darkness and haze run throughout the movie to depict the underlying coldness and complexity of Qala’s soul. The use of impressionism to reveal her inner turmoil and dialogues such as ‘jaise andar kuch tut raha hai,’ along with the fantastic acting of Dimri, phenomenally portray the topic of mental health that Dutt attempts to advocate for. The pain and agony that Qala goes through is conveniently shrugged off by the doctor as “this is a woman’s problem.”

Taking ‘rest’ is considered to be the only possible cure to deal with mental illness. This trope in the film, beautifully draws a parallel with author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s thoughts on mental health, conveyed through her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Eyer’s “Madwoman in the Attic”. What is questioned here is the constant typification of women and labelling them ‘mad’ if they have ambitions or even deal with vulnerabilities in an equally hostile and apathetic market-driven society.

The songs of the movie transport one to the aesthetics of the bygone era but also hint at several emotional and psychological facets. The soul wrenching lyrics by Varun Grover and the exceptionally beautiful renditions by Amit Trivedi, give this movie an edge over the others. One song in particular,“Bikharne na mujhko shauq hai bada, samete mujhko tu bata zara” sums up the pulse of the entire film and takes one on a journey of brokenness and the desire for love.

Qala touches upon various issues prevailing in society such as gender-based discrimination, exploitation of women in the film industry, mental health, parental relationships, etc. This ambitious endeavour however makes the storyline quite composite, making it too text heavy for the viewer at several points. However, the beauty of the film lies in its depiction of the fragile nature of human beings, their flawed attributes and inert brokenness. Be rest assured, the movie will leave you with a lot to think about. 

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Arpita Chowdhury

Arpita is a New Delhi-based PG student pursuing journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She majored in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is the founder of Jazbaat Foundation, a Delhi-based project working to uplift underprivileged students. Arpita is an avid writer. Her recent publication is a short poetry collection book titled “To the Soul.” 


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