Anvita Dutt has been in the Hindi film industry since the mid-2000s, writing lyrics and/or dialogues for movies like “Bachna Ae Haseeno,” “Dostana,” “I Hate Luv Storys,” “Anjaana Anjaani,” “Patiala House,” “Student of the Year,” “Bang Bang!” and more. But it wasn’t until the 2020 Netflix release, “Bulbbul,” that she helmed her first feature film. It received a significant amount of hype for the overall production design, Triptii Dimri’s performance, and Dutt’s subversion of the stereotypical portrayal of witches in Indian folklore. In my opinion, the film only managed to make surface-level statements about violent men, feminism, and allyship while prioritizing style over substance. Dutt’s highly anticipated “Qala” not only marks her second collaboration with Dimri but also introduces Irrfan Khan’s son, Babil Khan. And to be honest, Dutt’s attempt at entering the psychological horror subgenre is bad at best and painfully boring at worst.
“Qala,” tells the story of the titular character, played by Triptii Dimri, who is one of the most popular playback singers in 1930s Kolkata. Her assistant is Sudha (Girija Oak). She is best buddies with her colleagues Naseeban Aapa (Tasveer Kamil) and lyricist Majrooh (Varun Grover). Her future seems to be bright and full of opportunities. But she is haunted by the toxic relationship with her mother, Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee), who has always held a grudge against Qala for being the twin who survived childbirth and killed her unborn son in the process. This animosity was inadvertently aggravated by the arrival of a grass-roots level singer named Jagan (Babil Khan), as Urmila treated him like her son. When Urmila began to do everything in her power to make Jagan an established mainstream artist, Qala became more and more jealous of him. This caused her to take some unsavory steps, the consequences of which weigh heavily on her mind.
Dutt lays out the main conflict of the film, what is at stake, as well as the themes that she wants to tackle within the first 10-15 minutes. Since “Qala” is set around the music industry, there’s sexual abuse, favoritism, and a general air of disdain towards lyricists. There are loads of internalized sexism when it comes to Urmila and Qala, with Jagan seeming like an innocent soul who has unknowingly walked into this mess. And then there’s the “crime,” which ignites the horror element of this psychological horror. But, apart from mentioning the fact that these topics exist in the film, Dutt doesn’t do anything with them. She explains the obvious in the most mundane ways possible. Character motivations plainly hint towards certain plot twists, and the film’s awkward commentary on mental health runs in circles, much like the vinyl records, until they reach their hollow conclusions. And the possible reason behind it is the immense focus on the film’s “pretty” visuals.
There’s no denying that the work on display by Dutt, cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, production designer Meenal Agarwal, art director Ramesh Yadav, and the VFX artists is stunning. The use of snow, reflective surfaces, smoky exteriors and interiors, and the unmotivated lighting choices to evoke a noir-esque atmosphere is creative and hence, commendable. But what does it exactly do other than provide a faux sense of three-dimensionality to “Qala”? Well-composed frames end up being impressionable when they’re backed by solid storytelling. Or else it feels like a compilation of music videos and nothing else. Yes, Amit Trivedi’s songs are great. But they are mixed so poorly into the film and lip-synced so awfully by the actors that the final product looks rushed and half-hearted. The issue with the sound mixing isn’t limited to the songs and extends to the dialogue sequences too. However, the moment where every sense of immersion is destroyed is when Jason Hill’s “Silk Drape” from “Mindhunter” Season 2 plays around the film’s 49-minute mark. I’ll admit that I’m making this claim based on the screener I was provided by Netflix (screeners are often early cuts of the film), but if that’s in the final cut, this is horrible and inexcusable.
The acting department of “Qala” is an absolute dud. Triptii Dimri is clearly doing a lot as if she has been tasked with filling up everyone’s quota of “acting” (because everyone else is under-acting the hell out of their roles). Babil Khan’s debut is disastrous. Nothing that he does sticks in any way. Everyone from Swastika Mukherjee to Amit Sial, Sameer Kochhar, Girija Oak, Swanand Kirkire, Tasveer Kamil, Varun Grover, Abhishek Banerjee, etc., are simply there, trying way too hard to be synonymous with characteristics like “regal,” “demure,” and “sophisticated.” But much like the plot and the visuals of the film, it’s all on the surface. None of them seem to have inhabited their characters or let the characters inhabit them. They seem to be aware of when the camera is going to roll, where their marks are, how long the camera is going to be on them, and that’s it. So, technically, they are doing what’s expected of them without going the extra mile and making this world feel tangible and realistic. If that’s enough for you, then you won’t be disappointed.
In conclusion, “Qala” is a sleep-inducing movie that looks spectacular. Anvita Dutt evidently wants to talk about a lot of things because she is aware that those topics exist. But she fails to unpack them through her characters. At the cost of sounding repetitive, she does have an eye for composing gorgeous visuals. However, she must understand that there’s more to a movie than visuals and repetitive announcements of the plot’s underlying themes. She has committed the same mistake twice now, and I hope that she learns something before venturing into her third project. This is the second time that Anushka Sharma has collaborated with Dutt as a producer. This is the second time Triptii has collaborated with Dutt as an actor. So, they obviously see something in Dutt that’s not translating into her final products. It’s a good thing that she’s trying to carve her place in the horror genre, which is quite dicey in India but very fruitful internationally. I just think she needs to understand her subject matter before deciding how she’s going to present it on screen.