“There’s noise…here,” Qala (Tripti Dimri) touches her temple, then points to her heart, “and fear…here.” Early in Anvitaa Dutt’s new film Qala streaming on Netflix, its titular protagonist—a popular singer in 1950s’ Kolkata—has won a coveted award. But, as she tells her disbelieving doctor sitting in her dark bedroom, all’s not right. Weak light filters in from the street through floor-length white tissue curtains covered in a Rorschach-esque print of moth wings. As Qala speaks, a light breeze ruffles the eclipse of moths behind her. Her restlessness becomes palpable.
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Qala’s performance in Solan, staged at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai.
In Dutt’s sophomore release (after 2020’s Bulbbul), a young woman born into a home steeped in a musical legacy in the 1930s makes her mark against all odds, but comes undone after a lifetime of struggle, primarily for validation from an emotionally absent mother. A high stakes psychological drama, Qala relies heavily on visual design—by production designer Meenal Agarwal and cinematographer Sidharth Diwan—to articulate Qala and her mother Urmila’s (Swastika Mukherjee) fractured interior lives.
Cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and Tripti Dimri
While in pre-production, “Meenal showed me a piece of jewellery,” Dutt tells AD India. “An utterly beautiful moth brooch by [Rene] Lalique. That entire Calcutta house is a projection of that one brooch: the curves, shapes, colours—mother of pearl, the greens, enamel—in the doors, lamps, gilt mirrors; everything. Meenal said, ‘the moths of her mind go wherever she goes, right’, and that blew my mind.”
Moths were a major theme in the depiction of Qala’s mental framework. Dutt says the Calcutta home was inspired by a brooch by the famous 19th century French jeweller, Rene Lalique
To reach the heart of Qala’s darkness, the team has invoked Victorian Gothic architecture (“inherited architecture that was seen in India among a certain class at the time”, according to Agarwal), early 20th-century Art Nouveau (partly because Agarwal is not a fan of Art Deco, then a popular architectural form) and the art of Dutch Golden Age masters (“so much darkness and decay!”).
Qala’s Calcutta home was inspired wholly by Art Nouveau traditions. For the chandeliers, Agarwal referenced French architect and designer Hector Guimard’s designs.
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Except for some outdoor scenes shot on location in Gulmarg and the Royal Opera House in Mumbai, the team built elaborate sets and painstakingly fabricated props for everything else. Most of the action takes place between two residences. Urmila’s cavernous Gothic family mansion in Himachal Pradesh, which Dutt dubbed “the house of oppression”, came with pointed arches, stained glass rose windows and moss green velvet walls. Qala’s stylish Art Nouveau bachelor pad in Calcutta, “the house of delirium”, is replete with mirrors, elegant wallpaper and sinuous chandeliers. It exudes prosperity but, devoid of any personal knick-knacks, it subtextually also channels her self-consciousness and discomfort. Both spaces reek of privilege, but neither is particularly welcoming.
The labyrinth outside Qala’s childhood house, inspired by a hotel in Himachal Pradesh while scouting for locations. Agarwal decided to build it on set, and an exact replica for the toy, after Dutt’s epiphany: “Qala and Jagan trapped in this maze, the mercury moving slowly through the toy version, Qala trying to find her centre—every theme that I could think of, segued back to that maze.”
In Qala’s Calcutta house, the ‘Art Nouveau rose’ appears in the POP walls, cabinet glass and the upholstery of the sofa.
And then there’s the lighting by Diwan. For example, says Dutt, he used the lighting found in Vermeer paintings for young Qala—to accentuate the feeling of loneliness—and Rembrandt’s for Urmila, a colder beam. “Whenever Qala looked at her mother, there was always a halo-like light behind her, like a twisted Madonna-and-Child.”
Visual metaphors abound in Qala. More than the dialogue, the chandeliers, mirrors, wallpapers, gargoyles, mazes, zoetropes speak volumes about the protagonist’s turmoil. Dutt, a bibliophile who finds inspiration in everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman to Bram Stoker, invests heavily in world-building. “This isn’t art for art’s sake. It’s in service of the story. And every frame conveys an emotion.”
Gargoyles, or chimera popular in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, appear twice to mark Sumant Kumar’s (Amit Sial) entry and exit: “Almost as a warning of the monster in plain sight,” says Dutt.
Agarwal, who worked as a photographer for a decade before this, delights in the possibility of moving images; something she first realized while watching Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the documentary Man With a Movie Camera. “Still life might seem corny now,” she laughs, “but then you look at the work of someone like [Dutch painter] Adriaen Coorte and you realize there’s more to it. The Dutch invented the microscope, and it reflects in their paintings.” Not unlike Qala, “you have to zoom in to notice the details, the darkness.”
Sumant Kumar (Amit Sial), Qala (Tripti Dimri) and Majrooh (Varun Grover) at the recording studio in 1950s’ Calcutta. “We dug around Mehboob Studios and found references for the Hammertone paint used to cover the equipment, the locks and dials, stands and wheels for the mics; that they used fabric heavily to muffle sound,” says Agarwal.
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Photography by Amazon Prime Video
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