There's a lot to love about Anvitaa Dutt's latest film Qala, which is streaming on Netflix. The hero of this hauntingly beautiful piece of art is Qala Manjushree (Triptii Dimri), the country's much-loved playback singer in the late 1930s. In a sickeningly conservative, patriarchal society, Qala has made her own rules. However, her tumultuous relationship with her mother Urmila Devi (Swastika Mukherjee) and a past guilt is driving her to insanity.
One of Qala's many triumphs is the manner in which it has addressed mental health. Be it Qala, Urmila Devi or a very talented young singer Jagan (Babil Khan), everyone is at breaking point, strangled by circumstances. But no one is a villain here. For years, the mental health of men in Hindi films has rarely been a talking point. Whenever male characters suffer, it is seen as being caused by women. The narrative slowly started changing with A Death in The Gunj, and Qala has reinforced the thought that gender does not have to be a driving force when it comes to staging breakdowns or initiating a discussion around mental health.
'Darr to Devdas' - Men's Grief as a Result of Failed Love
Mental health among men has rarely been the focus in Hindi cinema. One of the very early movies that actually had the scope of turning the tables was Darr (1993). In possibly his breakout performance, Shah Rukh Khan played the role of a loner who is obsessed with a woman, stalks her and ends up dead. Shah Rukh played a similar role in Anjaam too, which released a year after Darr. These movies should have been reason enough to spark a conversation around mental health, but instead the incessant stalking (which was a common occurrence in films during that time) was perceived as a romantic routine. The 'anti-hero' was also assigned this specific characteristic, and women were viewed the reason for the hero's spiral into madness.
The disintegrating mental health among heroes is mostly as a result of failed love, giving an impression that it's women who are driving them to the depths of depression, which is often wrongly equated with grief. Take, for example, one of the most popular characters in Hindi cinema - Devdas. He is a young man who is unable to marry the woman he loves, and thus turns to alcoholism and falls for a sex worker Chandramukhi. However, he can't accept her love too because of the huge stigma surrounding women in the business of pleasure and his own warped sense of morality. There have been a number of renditions of Devdas in Bollywood, and all of them have viewed the character as a self-destructive lover.
For the longest time, it was perceived that men aren't afflicted with mental illnesses. Instead, they mostly suffer from grief because of failed love or unattainable women.
'Death In The Gunj' and the Changing Narrative
One of the most important movies that actually began changing the narrative is Konkona Sen Sharma's The Death In The Gunj. The film follows a family in Kolkata, who has returned to their ancestral home in the small town of McCluskiegunj. As events unfold, we see a young man's, already fragile, mind collapse. The family is joined by old friends and lovers, and most of them are complicit in persecuting Shutu (Vikrant Massey). The movie explores the ruthless bullying that Shutu is subjected to, all in the name of "teasing". All the characters are aware of their cruelties, yet they derive a sadistic pleasure pushing someone to the wall.
Qala - Rectifying the Gaze
Anvitaa Dutt's Qala takes the conversation forward and puts the spotlight on mental health without creating villains. All the characters react in certain ways because circumstances have forced them to. While the central character Qala (Triptii Dimri) is consumed by her own demons and her mother finds it impossible to break away from her conditioning, we also see a young musician Jagan (Babil Khan) struggling with his mental health which deteriorates after he loses his voice. In one of the most haunting scenes of the film, Jagan is seen sitting with his tanpura, trying to sing, only to be betrayed by his own voice. Tears stream down his face, as Qala watches on, struggling to feel his pain.
There's another heartbreaking scene where Jagan tells Qala how scared he is. "Andar kuch toot gaya hai", he says pointing at his heart. There's a strange sense of foreboding, and then tragedy strikes. As the layers peel, we understand the reason behind Qala's breakdowns, but never for once has it been hinted that she contributed to Jagan's failed mental state. If at all, there's enough sympathy for everyone.
Qala is a ray of hope that narratives are indeed changing for the better, albeit slowly.