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Newsletter: Why Netflix's Qala Strikes A Discordant Note

Far from having a starring role, Indian Classical Music is merely an afterthought in Anvita Dutt's film.

Newsletter: Why Netflix's Qala Strikes A Discordant Note
Detail from the poster for Qala. Netflix
  • Lakshmi Sreeram

Last Updated: 07.33 AM, Jan 19, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on December 11, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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ANVITA DUTT'S QALA (on Netflix), is among the more recent films to be set in the context of the world of Indian Classical Music. And it leaves you with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the production values are of a high order. The locations and sets are ravishingly beautiful. To the credit of the makers, the sense of gloom and doom shrouds the film so effectively, that rather than lulling us into pleasure at the sight of their quiet beauty, the settings add to the melancholia. But the storyline is unconvincing; the dramatic angles and lighting — exaggerated to project the aesthetic of hyperreality — don’t always work; and most irksome of all, are the blunders in the depictions of the world of Classical Music, which forms the broad canvas and context for the film.

The protagonist Qala (portrayed by Tripti Dimri) is a playback singer for the movies, but comes with rigorous training in Hindustani Classical Music. There are the inevitable references to the gharana — the proud lineage — that she belongs to. The demands of the learning process and an uncompromising guru’s toughness on the student are depicted when Qala is sent out into the snowy night because she is unable to repeat a phrase.

However, the film is really about the loneliness and despair of a young woman seeking her mother’s approval. The context of music — classical and film— seems entirely dispensable.  It could just as well have been any other thing — theatre, dance, science…. Although inexcusable, perhaps this is why the treatment of the context of music suffers from poor research, leading to glaring bloopers.

Qala’s mother (played by Swastika Mukherjee) is her guru; she is disappointed in Qala’s talent, capacity for hard work, and for being a woman — a girl — in a man’s world. Qala’s twin brother dies in their mother’s womb. The grieving mother’s resentment, fury and disappointment mount when she is told that this happens sometimes when one foetus is stronger and draws all the nutrition. When the infant girl cries, the mother rocks an empty cradle rather than soothing her surviving child.

The central theme then is Qala’s mother withholding love and appreciation, but it is not entirely clear why she would deliberately snub her daughter so unrelentingly at every opportunity. Is the suggestion here that all gurus are such sadistic and unfeeling people? There is no attempt to hint at a reason for her monstrousness. Perhaps she is just toxic, but the character development is poor, and unconvincing. Qala herself does not comprehend it, and we the audience too are given the delight of unresolved puzzlement.

Qala desperately seeks her mother’s approval and is repeatedly thwarted, but she is ambitious — she wants to bring home the Golden Vinyl trophy her mother believes her protégé Jagan will win. It is here that the storyline becomes weak. What is Qala’s mother’s problem with her? She says Qala does not have enough talent and cannot become a pandit “like him”. And she will not countenance Qala singing for “cheap” film people. But then she wants to launch Jagan’s career in the very same world of film and is not keen on training him to become a pandit. It is all rather confusing.

Constantly compared unfavourably to Jagan, made to play the tanpura while he sings — which speaks loudly to her secondary standing— Qala takes matters into her own hands to  eliminate the competition for her mother’s attention. This ends disastrously.

She is haunted by her act and this, coupled with her consuming and futile yearning for her mother’s love, drives her over the edge. Tripti Dimri’s portrayal of Qala does have its moments, especially when she projects her vulnerability and yearning.

QALA'S STORY COULD have been told using any context — classical music perhaps fitted the bill due to its aloofness and glamour. But surely, some research was warranted. One thinks of The Disciple, which tells the story of a young aspiring performer of Khayal who struggles with his own limited talent and limitless ambition for attaining an ideal perfection. He too is defeated, but the story is told with sparkling authenticity and is one of the best researched films around the theme of Indian Classical Music. It captures this complex world in the humdrum of the mundane.

In stark contrast, Qala excessively glamourises this world, seems to have made no effort at research, and is content with projecting some cliches about Indian Classical Music. The scene in which the mother teaches Qala is set in a large room with lovely, old wooden furniture; guru and student are strumming a tanpura each. The tanpuras are large — meant for male singers, with their lower pitches; certainly, the smaller tanpuras that women singers use would not have the same visual effect. But for the makers of the film, visual effect trumps authenticity. And, while strumming the tanpura is an art and one can do a good or bad job of it, the action itself is pretty simple and can be learnt by dummies. Evidently, neither actress thought of attempting to get the act right, and watching them grope the strings is painful — to say the least.

Sudden appearances of the sitar too are inexplicable, except for the visual aspect. When Qala poses with the sitar held across her slim figure it makes for a pretty picture. This is one of the images used in publicity material. But what was the sitar doing there? Are we to infer that Qala trained in the sitar too? Or is it just that they look similar? Sitar, tanpura…they are all instruments, what does it matter!

In fact, one does not hear much classical music at all in the film. The aforementioned scene has the mother singing some strange musical phrases in a voice that is certainly not of classical music, especially of a hundred years ago. No Khayal or Dhrupad is heard in the film. The closest one gets to classical music is in Qala’s first public performance, when she sings Wajid Ali Shah’s immortal Thumri “Babul Mora” in Raga Bhairavi, which borders on the classical. In a serious blooper, Qala’s rendition is followed by her rival Jagan’s performance. A rudimentary knowledge of the world of performance would tell one that Bhairavi signals the end of performances for the day. If another performer is to follow, a well-entrenched convention dictates that the earlier singer should refrain from performing Bhairavi.

With such scant presence of classical music — and the little that is present also so flawed — it is a fair criticism to say that Indian Classical Music has simply been appropriated and used for its aura and nothing else, in Qala.

Indian Classical Music figures as a character in films like Baiju Bawara, Basant Bahar, Morning Raga, Sankarabharanam, Tillana Mohanambal, Katiyar Kalijat Ghusali, Megha Dhaka Tara and several others. And it will continue to figure in our cinema, for this world exercises a fascination and reverence in the minds of a good cross-section of viewers, and can open itself to endless explorations. But research is indispensable to authentically depict the ethos, the values and even the bare facts about this world.

It is a travesty to simply exploit cliched ideas about it to set the context for a film such as Qala.

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Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between.

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