Of the many inspired touches in Qala, the most incisive is the recurring use of a Himachali lullaby. The melody is enough to move you to tears, as Mohit Chauhan’s version of the song used to do to me. Sireesha Bhagavatula sings it here, unaccompanied, and it’s just as pretty. But the words carry a dark undercurrent. A mother sings to her young girl, why do you look so wan? The daughter replies that a peacock singing in the forest has stolen her dreams. We’ll get a gun and kill the peacock, the mother says. No, we mustn't, the girl says, we’ll just silence it, lock it up in a cage. And there are two lines that aren’t used in the film: Where do the moon and stars go?/ mother, where do the ones we love disappear?/ The moon hides and so do the stars, daughter/ but those we love don’t go anywhere.
There’s a reason these lines aren’t sung. The reassurance the mother in the song offers is not replicated by the mother in the film. Even without them, though, it’s perfect for Anvitaa Dutt’s film, which is a thing of tenderness and violence and beauty. It almost feels like Qala is extrapolated from this, like Lootera was from O. Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’. There’s a girl with dreams deferred. A songbird silenced. The sort of mother who’d kill a peacock for singing.
We first meet Qala (Triptii Dimri) at the height of her fame as a Hindi film playback singer. A crowd has gathered to catch a glimpse of her on the balcony. For a second, she’s an apparition, a beam of light, before we realize it’s sunlight reflecting off the gold record she’s holding. Inside, she takes questions from the press. She starts off serenely but tension builds as the sexist questioning continues. Then one reporter asks about the time her mother had come down to promote her brother. Qala shuts down. “No,” she says, looking away. “She has no son. There’s only me. Only me.”
This is true, and also untrue in profound and damaging ways. There could have been a brother, if he was not lost in utero. Would Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee) have been a different kind of mother had the first thing she learnt about her daughter not been that she'd absorbed her sibling’s share of nourishment in the womb? She’s a distant, pathologically demanding parent from the very start, playing a harsh classical vocal on the gramophone as she rocks her child in the cradle, no love in her eyes (Amit Trivedi does a terrific job with the songs, which span thumri, folk and old Hindi film, and the shimmery score). We learn that Urmila’s grandfather was a famous thumri singer, and that she sacrificed her own musical dreams because it was more acceptable for a man to carry forward the legacy. Qala grows up in a gothic mansion in the frozen wilderness of Himachal with a singular mission: to become the voice of her gharana, and thereby win her mother’s affection.
There were baroque touches in Dutt’s first film, Bulbbul. In Qala, these flourishes are woven into the fabric of the entire film. Apparitions appear in mirrors. The screen is flipped 90 degrees, turning an emotionally fraught moment into a physically impossible one. As Qala’s mental state fractures under the cruel instruction of her mother, it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from hallucination. A party turns phantasmagoric. A bug flies into an eye. A silver ball of mercury is a visual rhyme with a water droplet, which becomes a dozen shining drops, which become sleeping pills. Dutt and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan work wonders, the images following a kind of dream logic. There’s a transition from Qala standing in a spotlight in the snow to her recording for the first time in the studio. During a later recording, at the peak of her inner tumult, she imagines the studio filling with snow and breaks down.
Perhaps Qala might have moved on, found satisfaction in her success and the friendship of lyricist Majrooh (a warm, watchful turn by Varun Grover), if the only thing she had to shake was her mother. But there’s something else—another brother that never was. At her first public showing, Qala is surprised to hear that a young folk singer named Jagan will be performing after her. And she’s shattered when she sees her mother moved to tears by his voice. (Jagan is played by Babil Khan, who is so incredibly pained and who so resembles his father, Irrfan, in some scenes that it made me start.) When Urmila brings Jagan to live with them, Qala’s humiliation is complete. He’s everything she isn’t: beloved to her mother, a natural talent rather than one who’s taken it up as a mission, a real orphan instead of a child with an absent parent. Even when she’s eclipsed him, he haunts her. The Bergman-like harshness of the family drama is confirmed by a replication of the famous framing of the faces in Persona.
As Bulbbul was feminist horror, Qala is feminist psychodrama. It is particularly interested in women’s prescribed roles in the first half of the 20th century, and the limits placed even on trailblazers. Qala is discouraged from becoming the torchbearer for her gharana. Naseeban Apa (Tasveer Kamil) is a rare film music composer, but must ignore the gossip this generates. Qala hires a woman as her secretary, but only after arguing with a man about how it would look. The photographer who visits Qala for a magazine shoot is a woman, modeled on Homai Vyarawalla. Qala tells her in passing she loved her set with Indira—a reminder that a woman would be in charge at the top too. Yet, even she is relegated to the back of the room by male journalists during a press meet, and has to be called forward by Qala.
One revealing scene sees a doctor called in to check on Qala, who’s had a breakdown. “There’s commotion… here,” Qala says, touching her head. “And fear… here”—indicating her heart. The doctor brushes it off as a ‘ladies’ problem’, a case of acute artistic sensitivity (hysteria was a common diagnosis that sent healthy women to mental hospitals even in the 20th century). She asks him to prescribe sleeping pills. “Aap sochna band kijiye (stop thinking)”, he advises. There’s a sense, in this scene, and many others, of everything reinforcing everything else; the long shadows in the room hinting at the shadows in Qala’s mind, the billowing curtains behind her patterned like skeletal trees in the snow.
Urmila’s hate for her daughter is so all-consuming and inexplicable that it seems to me to inhibit Mukherjee’s performance. But Dimri is startlingly good. She plays Qala at three stages in her life—as a young woman in the shadow of her mother, as a callow singer striking out on her own, and as a successful artist —and brings to each a different sort of tremulous intensity. There’s a long sequence where she’s recording her first film song in which she nearly falls apart as a result of nervousness and abuse. The change in body language when she finds a way to bury the pain and adopt a persona is near-miraculous. She shows, for an instant, how there can be noise in the head and fear in the heart, yet a song on the lips.