Directed by Anvita Dutt Guptan, the mind behind 2020’s Bulbbul, comes another Netflix film, Qala. The cast includes Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, and Tripti Dimri. Set in pre-independent 1940s Kolkata, Qala is a brilliant critique of patriarchy, essentially the patriarchy perpetuated and imposed by women on other women. In the movie, it is Urmila’s (Qala’s mother) patriarchy against Qala’s innocent girlhood.
Right from the beginning of the film, we see Urmila (a single parent) holding her newborn daughter with tenderness until a sudden scorn overpowers her after she is told that Qala was the stronger fetus, and she absorbed the nutrition from her twin fetus, who happened to be a male child. From here on, the movie sets its premise in motion: Urmila’s lack of parental acceptance of Qala, and Qala’s struggle with her identity as a generational singer, primarily because of the rejection she faces from Urmila.
When Urmila makes Qala follow her ancestral footsteps, and learn music, there’s a condition: she has to be a Pundit, like her forefathers, not a Bai, whose respect is no more than that of a prostitute. Learning under the harsh guidance of her mother, Qala finally gives her first public performance. Urmila, although happy, is not as proud as a parent should be. Her overwhelming pride only surfaces when she hears an orphan boy, Jagan, who grew up in a Gurdwara, singing. While Qala’s first performance is hardly given any screen time, Jagan’s performance (of Nirbhau Nirvair) takes up more than 3 minutes of the film’s 1 hour 59 minutes runtime. Jagan’s first performance overshadowing Qala’s then becomes a recurring theme in Dutt’s film.
A few scenes later, to Qala’s as well as the viewer’s surprise, Urmila not only makes Jagan her protege, but also brings him home, making him a part of her, and by default, Qala’s life. Jagan is the son Urmila could never have, and her focus is now entirely shifted to his career, snatching the minimal attention Qala used to get from her mother.
After this incident, the journey of Qala’s war with Jagan begins. Despite trying her best to prove her abilities to her mother, it is always Jagan she prefers. Qala is invisible to Urmila. But despite being invisible, Qala continues to observe and learn. One such thing she learns from Urmila (by secretly watching her mother’s private time with a man) is attracting a man with a cigarette trick. Qala’s naivety when she awkwardly, shyly, rather unwantedly performs the trick on a filmmaker is the demonstration of Urmila’s failure as a parent, primarily as a woman, to protect Qala from the dangers of the film industry, despite being aware of its risks. Therefore, the sexual trauma Qala goes through later in life can easily be attributed to Urmila’s absence as an aware, advising parent.
Desperate for her mother’s validation, and frustrated by her mother’s undying love for her newly found son, Qala, in a fit of passion, poisons Jagan with mercury, which she gets from a box game of puzzle. Mercury ruins vocal cords, Qala knows this because Urmila had once scolded her for putting a thermometer in Jagan’s mouth to check his fever. Here, Jagan’s loss of voice is symbolic of the power shift in their visibly imbalanced relationship . With his voice lost, it is time for Qala to sing. Not being able to sing despite having an unmatched voice, Jagan is forced to feel what Qala had gone through all these years (though that realization is not explicitly shown). Overcome by grief, Jagan commits suicide.
After Jagan’s suicide, Qala begins hallucinating him, reliving the guilt of his death again and again in her head. Her deteriorating mental health is given the name ‘hysteria’, and ‘monthly problems that every woman goes through’ by a licensed doctor. Without adequate medical help, Qala loses herself completely and commits suicide, following a visually rich yet disturbing sequence of her re-hallucinating the day of Jagan’s suicide. Her mother does arrive to take her daughter back home, but it is too late already. Qala is dead.
Both of Urmila’s children dying by hanging themselves is symbolic of the mother’s contrasting clutch on the two. For the boy, the clutch is of overt love. And for Qala, it is the lack of it. In a way, both children kill each other — Qala by ruining his voice, and Jagan by haunting her psychologically. Therefore, the true killer, although indirectly and unintentionally, is Urmila herself.
Qala is a master study of mother-daughter conflict, where despite their challenged relationship, both women are victims of patriarchy in their respective lives. Urmila puts restrictions on Qala, from a place of internalized envy (as a woman), limiting her from being someone she (Urmila) couldn’t become herself. Yet, Urmila, as a mother, always loved Qala. She kept a record of Qala’s songs, her magazine cutouts, and listened to all her interviews, as well as paparazzi updates. Hence, Qala always remained her mother’s daughter. Moreover, Urmila’s unacceptance of Qala’s existence and talent, somewhat positively, makes Qala more considerate as a person. She speaks up for her female personal assistant (played by Girija Oak), gives a platform to a female cameraperson, and doesn’t discriminate against Naseeban Appa (played by Tasveer Kamil), who is called a ‘bai’ (insultingly), despite being a wonderful singer. But even as a self-made, successful, publicly loved rich woman, Qala’s story ends with her death.
Qala’s death, indubitably, is a sign of female helplessness. Dutt has faced some criticism, as both her female protagonists (Bulbbul in Bulbbul, and Qala in Qala) die at the end, enraging viewers/critics against the supposed portrayal of women as utterly tragic characters. The criticism stands valid. But the deaths of female protagonists in Dutt’s films are brutal reminders of the reality faced by most women. Not to suggest that the only way for a woman to attain agency or peace is through physical/sexual trauma or death, but disregarding Qala’s portrayal of female anguish is denying the truth that a woman’s life is almost always clouded by some kind of trauma, be it verbal abuse, physical assault, sexual offense, or casual sexism. Similarly, Qala’s death is symbolic of women being denied a chance at revival (physical, mental, psychological), and ending up dead after being rejected, repressed, and restrained.
Paired with the film’s scenes perfectly, Qala’s songs are beautiful. Ghodey pe Sawaar sounds like a regular, playful love song, but is a satire on the trope of ‘ek ladki ki naa me hi haan hai’. Rubaaiyaan, Udd Jayega, Phero na Najariya, and Nirbhau Nirvair are thoroughly impressive, stirring songs. Shauq, written by public favorite, Varun Grover (who also plays the role of a bright-red nail polish-wearing Majrooh — a progressive male, in a sea of perverts) is a beautiful song, with lyrics so soulful, you feel impassioned every time you listen to it. The majority of the song is sung by Shahid Mallya, with half a verse sung by Sireesha Bhagavatula. Qala, who sings Bhagavatula’s verse in the film, is cut off by Urmila, who instead tells Jagan to continue singing. The absence of the female verse in the song, even on Spotify (and Youtube), is a truthful reminder of all the female voices shunned by patriarchy, being reduced to mere nothing.
Shubhangi is pursuing her Master’s degree in English literature from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Her poems, stories, and articles have been published in publications such as The Indian Review, Borderless, Booked For Life, and The Indian Periodical.