Current Cinema: Anvitaa Dutt: An Original Voice for Female Fables

The critical success of ‘Qala’ and ‘Bulbbul’ attests to the writer-director’s subversive


and immersive storytelling and the courageous backing of her producers

Conventional wisdom is that filmmakers think in images, and writers think in words. Imagine this. When a director thinks in images eerily poetic, and she is also a screenplay-writer/ lyricist, it is a felicitous fusion. The best crucible of creativity. And when you have a producer with the courage to back this rare creativity that departs from the mainstream formula, magic happens.

The magic maker is Anvitaa Dutt, the scriptwriter, lyricist turned director, whose two films have left the audience floating on a sea of enthrallment while disturbing undertows pull you into depths of anger and despair. She is two films old – Qala preceded by Bulbbul – and they are unique, each a minor masterpiece in its own way. They are real and yet limned with a fantasy that

is not escapist but subversive. Subversion that is subtly hinted at and then turns brutally violent.

Dutt’s films demand a chronological exploration because, in the space of two years, she shows her mastery of narrative finesse in two very different genres. Common to the latest Qala and the earlier Bulbbul is immersive storytelling through artful color saturation to convey a host of meanings beyond words. Music and silence, apparent opposites, complement each other to add

another dimension. Stunning…surreal…haunting…disturbing… one searches for adjectives to describe her films that are grounded in reality, but phantom winds fly the narrative to supernatural realms. But again, the supernatural, of chudail the demon woman, is the myth spun with delicate precision by a wronged woman. The supernatural validates an abused woman’s

vengeance. Bulbbul‘s color saturation creates a palpable texture, rich in subtext and literary association.

The tale of the child bride married to a much older zamindar set in 1881 is the Indian illustration of the hidden, dangerous core embedded in a fairy tale. Fairy and folk tales carry a local habitation and name but share a similar structure across countries and cultures. Bruno Bettelheim’s analyses of the hidden cautionary message in the simple children’s story in his seminal (if controversial book) The Uses of Enchantment works for Bulbbul too.

The violence under the period charm lurks like a prowling shadow to shatter the languorous, sensuous texture of a film that lulls you into enjoying the lush visuals. It beguiles you into the enchanting world of a young girl’s love for scary stories.

In a long, in-depth conversation with Smriti Kiran for the Mumbai festival blog, Dutt says: “{In} The original ’vanilla version’ of the sanitized, the cautionary dark side {is} excised.” It speaks of her fascination with fairy tales as a young girl and later awareness of the fearsome darkness crouching like a lethal beast to pounce on the innocent girl child. Then comes the subversion by

modern myth demystifiers. The eponymous heroine (I would call her hero, for her courage and determination to kill all the abusive men she meets in her cloistered world) recalls the iconic women of Bengali literature and cinema – Binodini and Charulata. The references are quite obvious. Bulbbul the child bride mistakes Satya, a boy a little older than herself to be her husband. But she is married to the much older Indranil, a zamindar with a mentally challenged identical twin (Rahul Bose plays both who have a streak of sadistic violence under the seeming difference of intelligence and behavior).

20 years later, Satya (Avinash Tiwary) and Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) are inseparable, writing a book together (an echo of the literary companionship edged with competitive spirit between Charu and Amal in Charulata). The jealous husband sends Satya off to London to study law and then leaves home. Bulbbul preens like the Thakurain to the chagrin of Binodini (Paoli Dam)

married to the mentally unstable twin. She is soon widowed. Satya can’t reconcile the self-assured Bulbbul to the younger girl who saw him as a playmate/mentor and was in love with him. She is now close friends with Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), the cultured, civil doctor. Forerunner of the renaissance man who brought reform to the feudal orthodoxy ruling Bengal.

All that foreign education hasn’t taught Satya to treat an adult woman as an equal. He is jealous but camouflages it under the cloak of family honor being compromised. She does not veil herself before Sudip, an outsider, as befits the elder daughter-in-law of a Thakur household. Dutt tells the story with many flashbacks, slowly building up to the horror of Indranil

mercilessly beating Bulbbul, and then, when she is immovable in bed, she wounded feet bandaged and tied to the bed posts, the maniacal leering twin rapes her. We know from the signature red enveloping the forest, and news of men mysteriously killed by the chudail dwelling on trees, who is killing the evil men.

Even the rational Satya believes there is a Rakshas haunting the forest while the good doctor who is riding along in the horse carriage with him, it is a devi dispensing justice. We return to the old trope of a woman having to be either a demon or devi in her rape-revenge mission. The climax is visually spectacular in the midst of red clouds and raging fire but the gorgeous visuals

can’t mask the rather weak writing. But Dutt’s narrative nous sweeps along to the rhythm of Amit Trivedi’s score and we overlook the few glitches. Finally, its strong feminist message is conveyed through associative symbols used inventively – red symbolizes violence and murder, passion and creation, worship and adoration, plus the book Bulbbul is writing has a red cover –

and the power of a folk tale retold.

Qala is a total departure stylistically from Bulbbul’s lushness. It is mostly in shades of grey and often, the cinematography favors German expressionism to underline the exploitative nature of the film music scene of the ’30s and ’40s Calcutta – the capital of the powerful gramophone record business that could make stars of unknowns. The spine of the narrative is the poignant

story of the aspiring singer Qala (Tripti Dimri) and her troubled relationship with Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), a well-known Thumri singer in her prime. The latter is a diva; voluptuous and can seduce men with her eyes and voice. Qala is timid, her self-confidence frayed to tatters by the demanding mother who withholds both affection and approval. Dutt

uses flashbacks fluidly. Her cinematographer Sidharth Diwan and production designer Meenal Agarwal are magnificent in evoking an all-pervasive grey tone, be it in icy Himachal Pradesh or art deco Calcutta. Amit Trivedi’s music, vocal, and background score meld seamlessly into the dark narrative – a stark graph of mental illness unrecognized by those around Qala till it is too

late.

Urmila taunts Qala as the cuckoo who usurps the nest of others. The reference is to the twin – a son dead in the womb because the female fetus had sucked off all the nutrition. An unsure girl burdened with guilt from early childhood falls deeper into the abyss of guilt. The mother favors the orphan Jagan (Babil Khan inherits father Irrfan’s intense eyes and bearing) who

sings with passion the Kabir dohas he learned at a Gurdwara than the correct classicism in which Qala has been assiduously tutored. Urmila is grooming Jagan and presents him at a soiree peopled by Calcutta’s chosen elite so that he can become the next singing sensation. Dutt gives the characters intriguing names: the reigning singer is Chandan Lal Sanyal (Pahari Sanyal or

Kundan Lal Saigal?), the self-mocking lyricist is Majrooh, and Sumant Kumar, a top music director who preys on Qala for sexual favors.

Jealousy and despair drive Qala to infuse mercury into Jagan’s milk. He loses his voice, is seriously ill, and hangs himself since he can’t even breathe without music. Qala’s success with yet another Gold Disc to flaunt is a reminder of her corroding guilt. The camera uses the motif of the maze as an echo, a symbol of getting lost in guilt: the Himachal garden’s maze is captured

from a top angle, contrasting the dark bushes against the pristine snow, is echoed by the toy maze containing mercury droplets.

The cinematography brings an unexpected touch of Gothic horror – a gargoyle on a terrace when Qala is reduced to a sex object – to Dutt’s most assured film where script and images come together for a deliberately dissonant narrative. Dissonance has a dark rhythm, echoing the noise in Qala’s head. A kind of deliberately asymmetric symmetry masterfully achieved. The

dissonance is appropriate because we understand what is happening to Qala without identifying with her. The challenge of creating a character with whom the audience does not identify and yet absorbs you into an engaging story is tough, a test that Dutt passes with flying colors with a film devoid of obvious color.

Qala leaves you searching for adjectives. It is dark and yet lyrical in snatches. What emerges from this orchestration of contrarian voices is a strong original female voice that is unafraid to blend genres, and be delicately feminine and fiercely female. One that is feminist and yet chooses to delve into a woman’s vulnerability. This fusion of connotations that words bring in

their wake –feminine as delicate, and even manipulative to reach her goals, female as search for power and asserting it in the most effective manner. Dutt is this unique voice proving she has the cinematic skill to convey ambiguity through narratives that find the right image for the words, and music that glides from harmony to dissonance like a maestro.

Equal credit for the making of these films should go to Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh Ssharma whose company Clean Slate Filmz produced them (though Anushka has since left the company and her name does not feature as Producer for Qala). Anushka made her mark in commercial cinema but probably was looking for an outlet for creative departures from

formulaic entertainment. She found a vehicle for herself to play woman the hero in NH 10. Followed it up with a whimsical Phillauri, ostensibly a paranormal tale but was in fact a quirky family saga with a wistful ghost-bride haunting a wedding party. Suspenseful but not scary. Anushka played the winsome ghost haloed with pathos. Pari was dark as dark could be, a

chilling deep dive into the myth of a demon impregnating women with his seed so that the cult and his progeny (born in a month) live on. Anushka plays the poor enslaved young woman who finally breaks the chain of the demon seed to save the world from evil.

But these films, and the women in the stories, were seen through the male gaze. Even when free from negative connotations of the male gaze, there are traces of sub-textual patriarchal perspectives in these films. Sympathetic, yes. What was not visible was the empathy that delves deep into a woman’s mind and her unknowable desires and ambitions. Navdeep Singh is the

exception. NH 10 is a frightening world where the Constitution and rule of law end with the last mall in glittering Gurgaon. The land of khap panchayats, the rule of patriarchy where the cops are complicit with this male power structure, is the ruthless society into which Anushka stumbles – minus her husband who is shot dead, her phone and gun that she had procured for

self-protection after a road ambush by urban goons. She has to fight like a man and the power she fights against is an older woman who orders murder to uphold the patriarchal order.

In Anvitaa Dutt, Anushka and her brother Karnesh Ssharma, found the original voice to make female fables for a society steeped in patriarchy and struggling to break the chains. More power to the Sharma siblings and Netflix.

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