If writer-director Anvita Dutt’s debut Bulbbul bled gothic tears of red to mourn the passage of woman-to-witch passage, their Qala (Art) is a demi-tragic stunning canvas that weaves visual poetry via Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography and Ramesh Yadav’s art direction. Tracking the success of playback singer Qala Manjushree, the movie follows back her arc and the bleak shadow that falls on her purple patch in the recording studio. Tripti Dimri plays the titular role with gobsmacking translucency. Every emotion, its driver, and the subsequent guilt is an arc from her eyes to her gut, as is the reflux of her actions, for you to see. It’s a performance matched lockstep by Swastika Mukherjee as Urmila Manjushree, Qala’s mother: seething with illogical vitriol and anger against Qala, her behavior seems rootless. Until you factor in loss and post-partum depression, that births a recombinant persona that’s deadly and steeped in the labor of patriarchy.
Set in the Calcutta of the 1940s, Qala’s ascendance is marked by a heart-breaking copycat act that rolls in despair and desperation—the need to spotlight her talent in front of her mother and the hunger for her approval. Unlike the vain inner struggle in The Disciple, here, Qala feeds on her mother’s disdain. And strewn along this haunting path are the men: rakish playback Sanyal (Sameer Kocchar)—with whom director Dutt backdates unforgettable moonlit imagery of the Rahul Dev Burman classic, Chingari Koi Bhadke—producer Sumant Kumar (Amit Sial), music cognoscente Mansoor Sahab (Swanand Kirkire), and lyricist-poet Majrooh, who Varun Grover plays with the right dash of wit and on-the-societal-qui vive dryness. But it is Babil Khan’s Jagan who runs across the movie—and Qala’s life—with an innocence and cross-fire mark that’s also hurtingly ironic: he’s the nicest of them all, and finally with no agency except his voice and talent.
With Amit Trivedi’s fine score—one of their best in recent times—the music soothes and troubles, a deep knife in the heart of the story that’s a suture and a wound. Director Anvita Dutt doesn’t stop at the price one pays for success against all odds (‘noise in the head, fear in the heart’): they tell us that when you finally stand in the heat and glare of the spotlight, it’s pitch dark all around you. (Streaming on Netflix)
The Banshees of Inishirin
The trouble with change is that when you implement it in your life, its coruscating effect ripples not just for you but radiates outward to those around you, especially those whose lives orbit in the same path as yours, safe in the comfort of shared routines. So while that change is something you deem as the next in your epiphanic guide of self-improvement, the drastic change in your orbital path yanks the gravitational magnet of those close to you, throwing them off-kilter, almost as if you’ve made short-shrift of what you had with them. And the tug you feel is their emotional cry, calling you back into the comforting trundle of what used to be up until now.
It’s this tug-of-war that writer-director Martin McDonagh captures with affecting and astute clarity, setting their story on a fictional Irish island called Inishirin. It’s 1923, and even as the Irish Civil war winds down, the island—which could well be an allegory for all of us living our isolated lives with just a handful of known fixtures around us—witnesses the plumes and booms of distant cannons announcing the power of one side over the other. None of this comes close to the devastation that Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) experiences as his long-time 2 PM drinking buddy Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly cuts off the pint-cord between them. This act of attempted liberation sets in motion a series of events that escalate into an emotional tangle that neither can seem to solve, even as they refuse to deviate from their orbits. Confounded by Colm’s decision are the local pub owner Jonjo (Pat Shortt), who witnesses the crumbling with fascinated horror, Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), and Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), an unsettled youngster whose troubles lie at the door of his abusive father and local Garda, Peadar Kearney (Gary Lydon).
With some quietly scintillating landscape views by cinematographer Ben Davis that cloak the troubling goings-on, director McDonagh uses dry humor to capture the local trauma. The dialogues flit from a mirroring banter that is a stand-up’s delight to a no-frills, straight-as-an-arrow philosophy that hits home to a quivering effect. Aided Carter Burwell’s melancholic score, the cast is a stunning achievement. Kerry Condon’s act, torn between her nice, likable, and achingly dull brother and her own desires, touches right where it hurts, as does Keoghan’s performance: note the scene where he realizes that his love fantasy was just that: drowned in alcohol-spurred dreams that’ll never catch up with reality. Brendon Gleeson’s matter-of-fact presence is misleadingly terrific, carrying the heft of a decision that leaves his Colm in a self-imploding quandary.
Colin Farrell, re-upping his partnership with Gleeson after McDonagh’s smart-as-a-whip In Bruges, is a study in confounded misery; blubbering, blustering, mystified by the turn of events that have thrown his character’s life out of sorts, coshed by his buddy’s decision and nowhere to turn. Plus, there’s Sheila Flitton as Mrs. McCormick, who speaks as if she were one of the witches from Macbeth. But she’s more than that. She’s the beaming Banshee who foresees the impending deaths on the island as much as she mourns the bloody severing of a friendship. You can count your best friends on your fingers, can’t you? What’s life without them? (Streaming on Disney+ Hotstar)