Qala on Netflix Review: Harrowing, slow-burning psychological drama not meant for everyone

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaDec 02, 2022 | 17:47

Qala on Netflix Review: Harrowing, slow-burning psychological drama not meant for everyone

Qala is a powerful sophomore effort by Avnita Dutt (photo-Netflix)

When the pandemic began in 2020 and drove us to the confines of OTT platforms, Netflix India’s inconsistent track record included a mixed bag of movies ranging from forgettable (Anurag Kashyap’s Choked and the Kiara Advani-starrer Guilty) to outright bad (the hate watch-worthy Mrs Serial Killer). In this diverse lot, a distinct if not perfect entry was Anvita Dutt’s period horror Bulbbul marking the director and screenwriter’s film debut. 


With a blood-red colour palette, a bleak visualisation of colonial Bengal, and a charming lead performance by Triptii Dimri, Bulbbul might not have had that strong a plot but it definitely “looked good”. The same can be said with Dutt and Dimri’s sophomore Netflix collaboration Qala.

Yet again, Dutt succeeds at painting a period setting that is hauntingly aesthetic and Dimri gives her all, exploring new ground. So, before we get into the nitty gritty of the finer details, the director and her muse deserve your praise (before all the mainstream reviews populate your mind with clickbait-y mentions of Irrfan’s son).

But if we are to compare Qala with Dutt’s previous venture, the filmmaker does show creative progress with a stronger narrative and broader canvas to play around with. Set in the world of 1930s-era classical music, Qala hops across different phases in the troubled life of its titular protagonist, a classical-turned-playback singer who is burdened by an equally (if not more) talented brother Jagan (debutant Babil Khan) and her domineering mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee). 

In a culture where the male musicians have a higher chance of being referred to as a pandit (maestro) and their female counterparts face the fear of being reduced to a bai (courtesan), Qala must face pressure not only from her family but also the era’s sexist approach towards women. However, Dutt’s screenplay doesn’t incorporate any preachy moments of empowerment and we see the singer desperately trying to carve her own space while even breaking down in vulnerable moments.


While the film doesn’t shy away from its abstract elements, Triptii Dimri’s character is very much grounded in the real world. While her take on Bulbbul oozed with self-confidence, here she plays a polar opposite: a singer who is driven by success but also broken by all the trauma in her vicinity. 

Not to delve too much into the plot but the film does include some sensitive yet disturbing scenes involving exploitation and harassment. Bulbbul itself had a distinct scene of domestic violence (that might have played out in an unintentionally stylistic fashion for some viewers). In Qala, on the other hand, the realism still feels intact and these scenes are thankfully not heavy on shock value, unlike something like the notorious Marilyn Monroe “anti-biopic” Blonde that also dropped on Netflix this year.


The meekness and anxiety of Dimrii’s character also seem quite natural given that she has Swastika Mukherjee for a mother! The Bengali-Hindi actress is perfectly cast as Urmila, a mother who favours her son more than her daughter and is ready to go to any lengths to secure her lineage’s musical future. Even though Qala bears undertones of surrealist, abstract horror, Mukherjee’s performance would make one wonder of the terror that her screen presence might bring if she’s cast in horror similar to Hereditary or The Babadook. It seems like Mukherjee is perfectly suited to play the “troubled mother” archetype in the horror genre and Qala bears testimony to this. 


The cast also includes the late Irffan’s son Babil who gives his best for the limited role he has. A pretty unconventional “star kid”, he might have to prove his mettle in meatier roles but for a start, Qala is an artistic launch vehicle for him. With that being said, Khan’s singing scenes hardly seem convincing. Somehow, it gets difficult to picture the actor (who is in his early 20s) lip-syncing to some trained classical voices. 

But leave alone the debutant; the lip-syncing scenes get weirder as even Sameer Kochhar (yes, the IPL presenter) plays a gifted singer who has his own moments of singing ballads on lonely nights. The ensemble is indeed pretty diverse with the usually-villainous Amit Sial playing a sleazy music producer, Varun Grover playing a lyricist (basically himself), and even Anushka Sharma showing up in a cameo. 

Apart from Dimri and Mukherjee’s top-notch performances, the acting is balanced even as yet again, the lip-syncing might not seem very convincing. With that being said, Amit Trivedi is in his A-game as usual, composing ambient classical numbers with lyrics not only from modern-day writers like Kausar Munir and Amitabh Bhattacharya but even past legends like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and Sant Kabir (yes, the one who wrote your Hindi textbook’s dohe). 

Using such archaic writings and incorporating a 1930s setting could have been an artistically pleasing decision or a downright pretentious one. Qala’s struggles to reach to the top is similar to the artistic envy evoked by characters like Natalie Portman’s ballerina in Black Swan. And still, Dutt’s work doesn’t seem to be too derivative and Qala indeed seems to show the passion that went behind it. 

A large credit for Qala’s beauty obviously goes to cinematographer Siddharth Diwan who was also involved in Bulbbul. Diwan and his team highlight dim-lighting and drab colours that go well with the film’s archaic and wintry setting. The snow-laden landscape of Himachal is equal parts haunting and alluring, more in line with the wintry world of Lootera’s second half instead of the usual Imtiaz Ali ‘travel advertisements’. 

Much like Bulbbul, a healthy dose of colour grading is used on the skies to give an almost-Gothic touch. While Dutt’s debut heavily featured reddish skies, Qala evokes tones of blue, black and grey. But instead of serving as a distraction, the visual effects help in highlighting the surrealist nature of the narrative. Dutt’s reliance on such elements is still not flashy enough to make Qala an example of ‘style over substance’. 

All in all, the Netflix original can be a tough watch for some audiences given its serious subject matter and jumps between the real world and the protagonist’s own mental trials. The shocking third act might also not be everyone’s cup of tea. 

But for the ones who do get swooned by its mystery, Qala might be a rewarding experience especially in a year that has hardly offered any thoughtful Hindi features either on the big screen or on the OTT space.

We’re going with 3.5 stars out of 5 for Qala.

Last updated: December 02, 2022 | 17:47
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