By Ayesha Arfeen
Qala (2022) is written and directed by Anvita Dutt. It’s her second film as a director, first being Bulbbul (2019). The star cast comprises of Swastika Mukherjee, Dipti Dimri, Babil Khan, Amit Sial, Sameer Kochhar, Varun Grover, Girija Oak and Tasveer Kamil.
Contrary to the audience’s and critics’ beliefs, the film is more about the mother and not the daughter. What catches my attention is that the film is named Qala and not Kala. When it is written with Q, it is generally believed that it sounds like the letter ‘qaaf’ in Urdu or Arabic languages which is pronounced from the epiglottis. When it is written with letter K, it is read as ‘kaaf’. There are two main protagonists in the film, one is Kala and the other is her mother, Urmila. The film is not named after Kala as we have two main characters and not just one, Kala. The Film is Qala, which in Arabic means deceit. Also, there is a plus sign below the letter Q which we all know is a sign for female sex. The arc above the word Q however, draws our attention and needs explanation. The whole sign ☿, that is, Q with an arc above and a plus below is a symbol for the planet Mercury. And the film uses the element mercury for deceit. The whole interplay of different meanings of Mercury is interesting to see. The director uses it very cleverly. While men are from Mars and women are from Venus, can it be said that hermaphrodites are from Mercury? I am intentionally using the word hermaphrodites here, because of the symbols used and the fact that artists cannot be compartmentalized in one sex. They are both. Carl Linneaus uses this symbol in 1751 to denote perfect flowers with both pistils and stamens which are called hermaphrodites (Note: a flower is male with stamens only and female with pistil only). He uses this symbol before the present symbol of a plus below and an arrow above.
In the film, Kala (Dipti Dimri) feeds the element mercury to the male singer, Jagan (Babil Khan) and thus made her way to the film industry by deceit. Thus, both the symbol and the name of the film are justified.
The arc independently can be seen as a character arc. A character arc is a literary term for life-altering changes experienced by a character in a story. The main characters in the film may undergo extensive changes but are not always obvious to the audience. This is especially in relation to the mother (Swastika Mukherjee) in this film as her part of the story is not that obvious as that of Kala’s. Since these changes are not overtly visible to the audience, it is up to the writer to ensure these changes are clear and purposeful. Here comes the importance of the character arc, which shows the change in a character from the beginning of the story to the end. It can be positive, negative and it can be complex.
J.C. Cooper in his work, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (1987) defines the ark portrayed as crescent shape, as a symbol of feminine principle, the bearer of life, the womb, regeneration and a vehicle for carrying and transmitting the life principle.
He defines arc in the symbolism of circle, a symbol of dynamic, moving life.
Metaphorically, circularity is seen as feminine in most cultures. Its symbolism is explored at length in the works of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, and others.
Here, we have to know what exactly Feminine principle is. Femininity comes with the burden of acceptance of what we call the opposite of pleasure. The capacity of suffering, in contrast to the egoistic and masculine impulse of tension-release, is the essential characteristics of ‘feminine principle’ which Sandor Ferenczi theorizes as something as having the nature of a drive but at the same time associated with intelligence and reality principle. This drive element constitutes itself as the feminine version of death drive. In the dual instinct theory of Freud, the death instinct, or Thanatos, stands opposite to life instinct, the Eros, and is believed to be the drive underlying such behaviours as aggressiveness and masochism (not always in sexual terms).
We are talking of this in the context of the complexity of the character that is Urmila. Forget about the mother-daughter relationship; forget about who the characters are in real lives, that they existed and run parallel in the movie. Feeding of mercury to a singer and then rising to fame is even not new to us, as that is the oldest story of survival of the fittest. Keeping all female employees around her and asking for fees higher than the male singer even if it is by one rupee – nothing is new to us even if it talks of different times, that is the times of the 1930s. We have witnessed it all through some medium or the other. Women seducing males to get their work done, this is the oldest women-men business, each of them ‘using’ the other for a ‘greater’ good. So, what new is there in Qala that makes it phenomenal?
Here we are presented with the character of Urmila. Why is she living in the ever-snowy mountains while she could have easily shifted to a much warmer Calcutta? Why is she so silent? She is not even that narrow-minded that she wants a son over a daughter. She has proved it time and again in the movie that she is a progressive woman. But why she is so cold with her own daughter. We are shown that she regrets that her male child didn’t survive since Kala, the female child, took all the nutrition in the womb. She even imagined herself of killing her infant daughter. However, this is not the whole truth. There is something else to the story. While she talked of artists, she said they do not have a caste. She asks her daughter to be a Pandit like her father and not a Bai (the term ‘bai’ was used for courtroom singers and these female singers were looked down upon in society then and even now). She was a Thumri singer herself. Why has he stopped singing? There are so many ‘whys’ to this character and this needs a revisit.
Here we are introduced to the butterfly symbolism. The butterfly is shown many times in the film: at the start of the film when we are introduced to the characters; then at the beginning of the story, where Kala is shown waving to the crowd of press and fans after an award ceremony. The butterfly design on Kala’s blouse and saree speaks a lot; she wears butterfly-designed ear studs and those were zoomed at a scene where Jagan says that she is expected to accompany him at Tanpura. But the butterfly symbolism has to do something with the mother. Butterfly symbolizes rebirth. After all, as I have written somewhere else too, that mother and daughter is the same thing; it is just a matter of time and space. Is it not possible that the story is repeating itself? That Urmila has killed her singer husband by deceit and that living in the snow-covered mountains is her atonement. That wanting a male child and make him a Pandit was her atonement? That she stopped singing and was cold towards her daughter because she was nurturing her guilt.
Also, we have recurring images of puppets, in the background, in the form of shadows. Are these shadows not depicting the shadows of the past? And the folksong, “Dubri itni tu kiya kar hoi ho…?” Does the mother in this song or lullaby not advising her daughter to trap the man in a cage, to silence the man, who steals her dreams? The mother, in the lullaby, asks the daughter not to kill the man. It seems that Kala has taken this song literally. She craves for her mother’s attention and warmth. She was not feeling that guilty for what she did to Jagan. This is evident in a scene where she asks, “Awaaz hi to gai thi, jaan kyun li?” (You just lost your voice, why did you kill yourself for it?) Nothing mattered to Kala, except for her mother’s attention.
This takes us to yet another recurring theme, that is, the maze. The maze here represents the ancient Greek legend of the labyrinth built for King Minos of Crete to imprison the man-eating Minotaur. Here, we cannot escape from the folksong or lullaby that is sung in the film at different times. We have to read this maze keeping in mind the words of the lullaby where the mother asks he girl to imprison the man who steals her dreams away. What is important is that Urmila has encaged herself in the deserted snowy mountains. So, who is the Minotaur here? The maze, in general, symbolizes confusion and disorientation, the trap that confounds efforts to escape. Carl Jung too says that the maze is the most powerful symbol of the unconscious. The passageways and shadowy unknown represent our memories and abilities. Psychologically, the labyrinth is an archetype that still moves us and describes life for us in some essential way. Here, we must see the mother-daughter similarity, the only difference being the different time and space they are born into.
Labyrinth and maze are similar; except for the difference that labyrinth has a single exit, while a maze can have multiple exits. Since labyrinth is the most mysterious symbol, it can be said that it is, simultaneously, the object of fear and desire. It is used to symbolize far off lands and in this film too, we are presented with far off, deserted, and snowy areas of Himachal Pradesh where Urmila chose to settle down. This maze shows no exit. And it reminds us of another spectacular movie, The Shining (1980) by Stanley Kubrick, which uses the maze in a very effective way. Not just the maze, but the freezing coldness is a metaphor used in both the films. In the snow-covered areas too, it is difficult to find exit as all the areas look identical. The recurrent symbols take us to yet another movie, Signs (2002) by M. Night Shyamalan. Though both the films are quite different from each other, and the movie discussed here, but somehow they both come to mind instantly when one watches Qala.
The exit from the maze is sometimes possible only by deceit. As Darwin too said that the survival of the fittest is the natural law. Some species develop certain traits, which make their survival possible, others die out. Kala lost hope and decided to end her life only when her last attempt to gain her mother’s attention, failed. Emile Durkheim’s classic text The Suicide presented a sociological study of suicide and its conclusion that suicide can have origins in social causes rather than just being individual temperament. He classified suicide into four types. Kala’s suicide was anomic suicide which resulted from weakened social cohesion. The lack of warmth from the immediate family member, the feeling of not belonging led her to confusion and disconnectedness. On the other hand, Jagan’s suicide was at the same time fatalistic and egoistic. His social bond, his repute was suddenly at stake with his loss of voice. He could not cope with the situation. Losing his voice was the denial of the new self and of the agency. In this situation, he preferred to die rather than continuing the new oppressive conditions where he remains a lump of flesh without his music.
The snow symbolizes frozen feelings of the mother not just towards the daughter but to herself too. It symbolizes sadness and the end of a relationship, a life, a text and/or a film. Now, Urmila has not just one but two guilt; she lost not one but three relationships, her husband, her adopted son and her daughter. Losing her daughter means losing herself and the snow-covered mountains now become her fate till death.
Dr. Ayesha Arfeen holds a Ph.D. in Sociology of Cinema and Culture from JNU, New Delhi. She is known as a fiction writer and translator in Hindi.
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