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Of Gothic Horror, Moths & Women in Horror in 'Bulbbul' and 'Qala'

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

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Filmmaker Anvitaa Dutt and production designer Meena Agarwal, who have now worked together on the latter’s films Bulbbul and Qala, have used exquisite Gothic horror imagery in both films. The imagery relies on several well-placed motifs and in Qala’s case, on the planned absurdity of the Art Nouveau movement. 

For context, the eponymously titled Qala is the story of a woman (played by Triptii Dimri) who is haunted by her past while continuing to vye for her distant mother’s (Swastika Mukherjee as Urmila) affection. 

The Duality of Moths in Cinema

The moth, though not a dangerous creature in itself, has often been associated with death – sometimes even as a messenger.

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In Qala, death hangs heavy in the air from the very day of Qala’s birth. Her mother’s attitude of blame towards Qala is also influenced by death.

From Qala’s earrings when she’s in Himachal with her mother to light fixtures and curtains that resemble the almost transparent wings of some species, moths are everywhere to be found. 
'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Tripti Dimri in a still from Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

In films like Silence of the Lambs, Ole Bornedalor’s The Possession, and (to an extent) even Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic classic Crimson Peak, moths signify death and decay. They present a dark contrast to the butterfly, a creature usually associated with life, vigour, and beauty. This has led to an entire trope dedicated to the dark symbolism of the moth (or the Macabre Moth).

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Moths surround a character in a still from The Possession; a still from Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Another common connotation of a moth lies in the phrase “like a moth to a flame”. Qala’s need for her mother’s affection and validation consumes her and she is driven to that desire for being seen even as it destroys her. The aforementioned phrase holds a similar meaning since scientists have long tried to understand why moths are attracted to artificial lights or flames even when it can be fatal. 

In this case, perhaps, the moth plays a dual role – of both metaphor and metonymy. 
'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Tripti Dimri in a still from Qala flagged by moth motifs.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The other motif in Qala is snow. For the longest time snow and ice have appeared in cinema as adversaries to protagonists – representative of vast expanses, biting cold, struggle, and isolation. 

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In its very setting, Qala’s house in Himachal is surrounded by a vast expanse of snow. When she is removed from her house by her mother (who is literally freezing her out), she spends an awful amount of time in the snow.

Later in the film, the snow represents her past and her solitude; at one point suffocating her enough that she can’t see or hear beyond the flakes. Every time the image of Jagan (Babil Khan) haunts her, he is surrounded by said snow. 

‘Qala’ and Gothic Horror 

Gothic literature, specifically Gothic horror, has always dealt with themes of philosophy, internal/ external conflict, and above all, human morality and mortality. The horror element in Bulbbul is more rooted in the supernatural and fantasy than the act of being human (which matches the early days of Gothic literature).

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

A still from Bulbbul and one from Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Qala, instead, subscribes to the Gothic horror themes that were pioneered by Mary Shelley (aka the grandmother of Goth) with her debut novel Frankenstein.

Instead of entities, Qala deals with human folly and its consequences as horror. Large, sprawling and abandoned estates and dark nooks are staples of this genre – all of which can be spotted in Qala. 

The house Qala and Urmila (and later Jagan) inhabit is almost always dimly lit, keeping even sunlight out.

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Babil Khan in a still from Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

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While all the characters have Gothic characteristics, the most evident is Swastika Mukherjee as Urmila. She is villainous without being camp (it should be noted that she isn’t ‘a villain’) surrounded by smoke and often seen gazing into the distance dressed in silk and black. 

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Swastika Mukherjee in Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Another reference to Gothic literature – Qala is seen reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.

The book has long been interpreted as a study of the duality between ‘good and evil’ when it comes to human nature.

Mr Hyde represents Dr Jekyll’s worst tendencies or the urges that he considers shameful. Basically, one can never achieve complete moral ‘goodness’ and several people theorise that the attempt to do so by banishing all ‘not good’ thoughts to the subconscious can actually lead to the opposite result (as it does with Dr Jekyll). 

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Horror and The Woman

For the longest time, women were often victims of violent crimes or supernatural entities in horror. Other times, they would be vengeful spirits looking to exact their revenge on the male protagonists and his loved ones. Over time, female characters in horror would often seduce or entice their victims to meet gory ends or the ‘fear’ would arise from the absence of what is considered to be conventionally attractive. 

Disney, for instance, has often had female villains who have one or more of these three traits – ambitious, single, or old. 

In his book ‘Introduction to Japanese Horror Film’, Colette Balmain writes, “The reason for the success and ubiquity of such female ghosts is a mixture of female desire and fear of such empowerment.”

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

A still from Anvitaa Dutt's Bulbbul.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Anvitaa Dutt uses these fears brilliantly to create the characters of Bulbbul and Qala in her films. In Bulbbul, the female entity is positioned as a protector – you soon realise that the only people who fear this entity are the men since she presents brutal consequences to their brutal actions. 

In the film, even a young girl feels comforted by Bulbbul’s haunting call. At the same time, several men search the forest for this entity to ‘vanquish’ her.

Personally, I have my reservations about the film because of the way violence is tackled in it – the trope of making a woman suffer to no end to finally give her power should’ve been left behind years ago.

However, this is not a problem in Qala and in that sense, and more, the film is much more sensitive than the former. Qala is driven to madness and rage by her circumstances and trauma, which is a far cry from the pitiful characters women usually are written as under the male gaze. 

'Qala' and 'Bulbbul' are directed by Anvitaa Dutt with Meena Agarwal credited for production design.

Triptii Dimri in Qala.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Qala has an incredible drive to succeed and insists on uplifting female artistes around her. When we see her as a professional, she stands proud with her head held high but when she’s home, she burrows into herself, still searching for her mother. 

Both in Bulbbul and Qala, morality takes a backseat and rightfully so because the characters do not exist in a moral Utopia.

The films also ask the important question – why must the onus of morality rest with the women?

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Topics:  Babil Khan   Bulbbul   Qala (Movie) 

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