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Swastika Mukherjee and Tripti Dimri in Qala. (courtesy: tripti_dimri)Cast: Triptii Dimri, Swastika Mukherjee, Babil Khan, Amit Sial and Varun GroverDirector: Anvita DuttRating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)Fastidiously designed, heavily stylised and occasionally stolid, Qala is a music-themed, female-centric period drama that looks and sounds absolutely glorious. Powered as much by director Anvita Dutt’s screenplay as by its cinematography, production design, soundscape and editing, the film delivers enough by way of theme and treatment not to be merely a surface-level sensory experience.In soul and spirit, Dutt’s soulful sophomore venture scores on many fronts, not the least of which is its sensitive exploration of the mental toll that ambition, success and disillusionment can take on the emotionally vulnerable in a cutthroat world that gives nobody any quarters, certainly not if it is a girl scarred in the manner of the film’s eponymous protagonist.Set in the 1930s, when Calcutta was the hub of Hindi film music, Qala tells the story of a female playback singer caught in a web of defeats and deceits, part of which are of her own making. Her life revolves around music and her mother. Single-minded pursuit of the former distances her from the love of the latter. The consequences are disastrous.A meditative study of the daunting hurdles that stand in the way of a girl who deserves better, Qala is a worthy follow-up to the writer-director’s debut film, Bulbbul. It sees Dutt reunite not only with Netflix, but also with producer Karnesh Sharma of Clean Slate Filmz, music director Amit Trivedi, cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and actor Triptii Dimri. The repeat collaboration yields another film that is chiselled with care, if only at times with overt artifice.The occult makes way for the worldly. A young woman, pretty much like the child bride of Bulbbul, is up against a male-dominated society in which she has to work much harder than the men to get ahead in life. In the bargain, she must pay a high physical and emotional price.The progress that the protagonist makes against all odds is slow and agonising, with her mother, who believes she has the girl’s best interest at heart, playing both facilitator and spoilsport. There is something wrong with me, Qala intones when the family physician pays her visit after she has had a meltdown. That is a line she will have reason to repeat even when circumstances seem to be changing for the better.Bulbbul was a feminist supernatural thriller set in 19th century Bengal. Qala, with an equally strong gender-sensitive core, is a tale that depicts the struggles of a young girl in pre-Independence India fighting for a niche in the fields of classical music and playback singing.When a Solan boy Jagan Batwal (debutant Babil Khan), who literally comes in from the cold, infiltrates Qala’s world with the tacit encouragement of her mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), the fragile girl faces a deep abyss and encounters noises in her head and fear in her heart. She is in danger of being deprived of the role she has always aspired to play as the undisputed bearer of a generations-old musical legacy.A tragic past, her fraught relationship with her mother, the sudden advent of a male rival who threatens to scuttle her chances of making it big and her despairing response to the worsening situation combine to push Qala over the edge.The director demonstrates a self-assured hand all the way through. She does not give in to the temptation of resorting to grand, overdramatic flourishes. She banks instead on a blend of suggestions and subtle sleights to capture the delicate state of Qala’s life and mind. Her screenplay keeps a tight leash on the protagonist’s gradual descent into dire straits.The line dividing the ponderous and the contemplative is inevitably thin. There are moments in Qala that seem a touch stagey, but the taut script ensures that the deliberate narrative arc moves along smoothly, never letting the focus shift from the struggles of the vocalist who resorts to measures that aggravate her relationship with her mother.It is when dealing with the grey shades of the two principal characters – both mother and daughter have inner demons to ward off in the process of trying to realise their personal and familial dreams – that Qala is at its very best.The depiction of two women determined to keep their music alive even as they take divergent routes in that direction is marked by understatement. The artistic choice to utilise visual methods rather than overtly emotional sweeps serves the film well for the most part. It carves out two differing portraits of pain, one of a mother looking for replacement for a son she has never had, the other of a daughter battling for agency in a milieu that militates against her need to assert and express herself.Qala rides on a pair of impressive pivotal turns by Triptii Dimri and Swastika Mukherjee. They dig deep into the souls of two women who are as ambitious as they are susceptible to bouts of weakness and come up with compelling performances. The film also gives debutant Babil Khan the space to deliver a poignant act as a gifted but ill-fated singer proud of his talent.Flitting between a feudal mansion in Himachal Pradesh and Calcutta, Qala is obviously a fictional tale. It, however, gives its supporting characters names that bring to mind Hindi film music greats of yore. The leading singer of the era is Chandan Lal Sanyal (Sameer Kochhar), a music composer is Sumant Kumar (Amit Sial) and a lyricist is Majrooh (Varun Grover). To top it all, Anushka Sharma appears in a black and white song sequence in which she evokes Madhubala.Neither of these characters is derived from the realms of reality. Neither is the city that they work out of. Calcutta is the backdrop for a large part of the story but the city is recreated rather than real.In one scene, an incomplete (presumably computer-generated Howrah Bridge looms in the background (in the form of a time-framing device) as Qala, at a crucial juncture of her career, negotiates with a demanding composer who believes that she isn’t a finished article yet. The construction of the cantilever across the Hooghly began in the mid-1930s. With two ends of the bridge jutting outing over the river and link between them missing suggests that some years have passed.A snow-covered Kashmir stands in for Himachal. The ‘cheating’ does not take anything away from the exquisite texture that the production designer and the director of photography are able to create and sustain. The constant interplay of light and shade, of warm interiors and cold exteriors, of subdued hues and extravagant glows lends the film visual variety and depth and accentuates the psychological dimensions that are at play.Qala is out and out a director’s film that has ample room for the technicians and the actors to give full rein to their skills. Meticulous to a fault, parts of the film might seem somewhat overwrought but the issues and concerns that it embeds in a story set eight decades ago have an unfailingly contemporary resonance.Featured Video Of The DayAyushmann To NDTV On Stopping By Shah Rukh Khan’s Home Mannat

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