Triptii Dimri and Babil Khan during a song in "Qala".

Empathy for the Abyss — “Qala”

As I write about “Qala”, I keep having that moment where I feel…how the hell do I convey the experience of watching it? Qala is an immensely popular singer on Indian films in the 30s. She was raised by her mother to continue her father’s musical legacy, until her mother found an orphan boy whose maleness offered an easier path. What’s Qala’s own road to success after she’s forgotten and discarded within her own family?

But describing “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to witness it. The Hindi-language film is immediately one of the best musicals and horror films I’ve seen. It’s not a musical where everyone breaks into song, but it’s more focused on music and performance than most musicals where that does happen.

I’ve seen musicals that meld with horror before, usually in campy, fun ways that reassure and comfort. “Qala” has some of the most beautiful, gossamer-silky songs I’ve heard, their comfort, peace, and elegance increasingly transformed by story, performance, and meaning into tension, abandonment, desperation. The music here conveys horror in a way I’ve never seen or felt.

But praising “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to sit there as it reshapes itself as only the best gothic horrors can, or how its beautiful, classically-minded Indian songs evoke quiet screams from inner landscapes. “Qala” is a “Frankenstein” or “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or “The Invisible Man” emotionally codified to represent how women must switch between each in a world that sets them aside for men, trades them to be rid of them, expects servitude in exchange for opportunity.

In her two films, writer-director Anvitaa Dutt has clarified that the physical fantasies of torn identity in gothic horror are emotional realities for women. Her approach to horror isn’t one of surprising you with the twist. She brings you in on the ‘what’ of things pretty early so she can tell you the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Her horrors are about the very real ones that force those in fiction to arise.

Like the best of Guillermo del Toro and Julie Taymor, Dutt finds a way to fuse the relentlessly stylized to the utterly human. Much of this rests in her trust in Triptii Dimri, the lead who carries Qala through vast emotional ranges. In my review for “Bulbbul”, I compared Dimri to Anthony Hopkins in a particular way. Each knows that if you pick the right moment to go over the top, you can change the mechanics of how people watch a film. You can act a character in such a way that makes those around them act for her. By choosing moments where the supporting cast becomes audience not through structure or script, but simply through sheer will of a lead performer, we take up our seats as support – or even enabler – and become a part of that world.

By shattering our immersion with precision, that immersion re-forms with a greater gravity, encompassing us. What once laid outside our suspension of disbelief now orbits the performer. These performances move the norms of our immersion. Few performers can pull that off. Dimri is one of them. Few directors know how to empower this. Dutt is one of them. Usually it’s lightning in a bottle for such an actor and director to find each other. It’s even rarer still to maintain such a charged balance for long. Across two films now, Dimri and Dutt may’ve become the best actor-director pair working today.

But telling you that doesn’t communicate what it’s like to experience “Qala”. A lot of what I write for film begins as a meander. At some point, I know I’ll lock into a groove that embodies something about the film. I find a handhold, and then recenter my thoughts around that path into the film. Anything written before this gets cut or edited around that route, because a description or analysis means very little without conveying something about the experience of what it’s like to sit and watch.

But “Qala” is sheer, indivisible. It’s not impenetrable, it’s very easy to access, but to pull at any of its layers risks losing the context and empathy that shape them all. Pulling any single thread enough to show it to you misshapes the others. As elevated and wide-ranging as its style can be, there’s something pristinely real and consequential about the shape of “Qala”, something that makes us commiserate and understand horrible things because how else does one escape horror if it’s all they know?

A handhold into “Qala” feels like it swallows your arm. The film is sumptuous, if a film that feels like drowning could ever be described that way. The best way to describe “Qala” would be through a book of thoughts and reflections, or the kind of brief poem a poet only ever gets right once or twice in their life. The best way I have to describe “Qala” is that I can’t, not fully. I’m not sure I’d want to. What’s the emotional route into quicksand? How do you review an abyss? How do you describe awe except to say you were there to feel it?

You can watch “Qala” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more.

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