Almost every problem with writer-director Anvitaa Dutt’s debut film Bulbbul was palpable in one scene at the same time. Designed from the perspective of Rahul Bose’s villainous Thakur, it culminated with a burst of graphic violence inflicted on Triptii Dimri’s titular naive. Aside from the odd move of presenting a woman’s brutal assault from the male abuser’s point of view, the scene remains memorable because of Dutt’s aesthetic choices. For example, her decision to shoot the Thakur in slow motion and occasionally crop it out to capture painterly spatters of blood was excruciating to watch, and not for all the right reasons.
The scene literally glorified violence and played archaically on a subtextual level tropes of rape and revenge where women are only allowed to blossom after they have been mistreated first. Most of all, though, it represented Dutt’s tendency to sacrifice story and character on the altar of superficial beauty. Maybe validated by Bulbbul is generally well receivedshe chose to double down on that aesthetic – both visually and thematically – in her recent sophomore feature film, Qala.
It is a film that romanticizes women’s suffering, not as a horrific truth of patriarchal society, but as a rite of passage. Qala, the character, is a mentally ill musician who kills an innocent boy in a sustained display of jealousy, and yet the film portrays her as a tragic heroine. By doing so, it not only undermines her struggle, but also reduces the story of a real historical figure to, in effect, a conspiracy.
The film is essentially a series of distraction tactics – flawless frames, beautiful faces in those flawless frames, and grand music around flawless frames with beautiful people in them. Your attention is repeatedly directed to Qala’s lavish cinematography and soundscape, and not the characters they are supposed to serve.
The most egregious example of this is a third-act scene where Qala is forced to have oral sex with a filthy record executive. It is constructed so incoherently that it is equally unclear what is happening. We watch the honcho, played by Amit Sial, express ecstasy, seemingly alone on a moonlit rooftop. We don’t see the action in graphical detail, but we don’t have to. However, a suggestive shot of Qala being pushed to her knees would have helped. Because as it stands now, the shot makes it look like Amit Sial is urinating on a gargoyle. Seconds later, we see Qala stand up and wipe her mouth in disgust. But Dutt’s image is so full that chances are you, like me, are distracted by the unfinished Howrah Bridge in the background instead of focusing on Qala’s face.
The problem here is with the lighting; Dimri’s face is in the foreground, illuminated by a nearby flashing livewire. But instead of using these flashes as an excuse to obscure the background, the light (and therefore our attention) is evenly distributed, illuminating both the bridge and the protagonist’s face. It certainly looks nice; but it is self-destructive.
Beautiful cinematography is not the same as good cinematography. It’s understandable for an audience that only watches Marvel blockbusters and Kantara not to know the difference. But it’s especially annoying when filmmakers also seem to be confused by this. Empty visuals alone cannot tell a story. Sometimes the ugliest frames are the most evocative. But Dutt tends to direct in tableaus; it’s like she wants every moment of her films to be paused, admired, and then used as a backdrop. This is how you end up admiring the CGI backdrop in a shot that’s meant to be disgusting.
Now compare this to a similar scene in Blond, another recent Netflix movie that also ostensibly deals with a young woman’s troubled relationship with her mother, framed against her rise and fall in the entertainment world. Much has been said about Blonde’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe, and whether it was exploitative at all. But consider the scene where she is forced to perform a similar sex act on John F Kennedy. It was horrifying to watch, especially because of director Andrew Dominik’s visual choices.
Star Ana de Armas was framed in an extreme close-up, her eyes locked in yours; no Washington Monument in the background, nothing. JFK remained out of focus even on the few brief appearances he made on screen. The film’s provocative perspective was resolute; it wouldn’t fail Marilyn at her lowest point. In contrast, both Bulbbul and Qala not only center the men, but make the abuse of women breathtakingly beautiful to watch.
When you strip away the outer layers of the film, it becomes clear that Dutt doesn’t place much value on her audience. Her observations on feminism are tired at best and counterproductive at worst. In Bulbbul, she presented the titular character’s transformation into a man-eating witch as a plot twist, even though it was clear from the start that she was the mysterious murderess. And in Qala, Babil Khan’s character’s death from slow poisoning is also meant to be a huge reveal, despite the film telegraphing this plot development ages ago. Further incoherence can be felt when Babil Khan gets a grand introductory scene early in the film, mere moments after he had already been introduced. What happened there?
And then there are the obvious acts of plagiarism, which for some reason Dutt makes more striking by squeezing them into one surreal sequence. It’s the one that made people think of the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s similar modern masterpiece Black Swan. Distracted from the visuals, you might not notice that the background music in this scene is from another Netflix title, David Fincher’s serial killer show Mindhunter. They didn’t even bother to change it that much; they sat with their fingers crossed, hoping you wouldn’t notice.
Post-credits scene is a column in which we dissect new releases each week, with a particular focus on context, craft and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate on when the dust settles.