Art Nouveau and ‘a lot of drama in the darkness’

Qala reunites Anvitaa Dutt with production designer Meenal Agarwal. Dutt and Agarwal had previously collaborated on Dutt’s directorial debut Bulbul (2020), a Bengali Gothic tale of witchcraft, sexual exploitation and revenge. Bulbul unfolded in a constructed world of expressive sets and symbolic lighting choices. Qala too relies heavily on a deliberate visual design to explore its themes of familial ties, ambition and celebrity.

Qala will be premiered on Netflix on December 1. The Hindi-language film, produced by Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, takes place between the 1930s and the 1950s. Triptii Dimri plays the titular singer, whose path to fame winds past an uncaring mother, questionable personal choices, and sexual predators. The principal cast includes Swastika Mukherjee as Qala’s mother, Babil Khan (in his acting debut) as a singer who competes with Qala, and Amit Sial as a music composer.

Among the movie’s highlights is Agarwal’s evocative production design. Except for a few outdoor sequences (including in Gulmarg in Kashmir), Qala relies entirely on sets. There are two key locales: the house in Himachal Pradesh where Qala was born and raised, and her apartment in Kolkata, to which she moves to pursue her career.

Every visual element in Qala is of significance, whether it’s the recurring motif of a moth, the various props or the green-colored walls of the singer’s home. The movie’s look feeds into Dutt’s attempt to portray Qala’s ascent and descent.

Triptych Dimri in Qala (2022). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix.

Before Meenal Agarwal ventured into production design, she worked as a photographer. She had a two-year stint at the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day in the 1990s, later shooting the backdrops for performance artist Pusphamala N’s project Phantom Lady.

After assisting production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji on commercials, Agarwal had her first independent credit on Rajat Kapoor’s film. Mixed Doubles in 2006. Her subsequent credits include Kapoor’s Mithya (2008) and Ankhon Dekhi (2013), Shashanka Ghosh’s Quick Gun Murugun (2009) and Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) and Sui Dhaaga (2018).

In an interview, 52-year-old Agarwal walked Scroll.in through the stylistic influences of the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau movement on Qala’s sets and Veera Kapoor Ee’s costumes.

‘Qala’ reunites you with Anvitaa Dutt. Tell us about your working relationship.
Anvita comes from the school of the fantastical. This is a space that excites her as a director and writer and comes very easily to her. I too have discovered that I enjoy this [fantastical space] a lot. I wish I would get more work like this. Sometimes, you meet people with whom you get on the same page and have similar aesthetics.

Qala (2022).

Most of the times, people resist new ideas. But when you give Anvitaa an idea, she will run with it and take it further. Take the example of Bulbul. I showed her an image, almost theatrical, of a man standing behind a sheer red fabric. Could this perhaps be used for the rape scene in the film?

Anvitaa didn’t react immediately. She later said, the whole second half will be in red and treated like the blood moon. It’s a daring thing to do for a first film. Her confidence in pulling it off is quite lovely for a production designer.

There has been a lot of freedom, allowing the brain to fly. Karnesh too is a great producer who understands the value of art, unlike lots of producers who will think, why should I spend so much money on a wall on a detail?

Babil Khan and Triptii Dimri in Qala (2022). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix.

What were some of the ideas that guided the production design of ‘Qala’?
The main stylistic influence is Art Nouveau, which involves a lot of construction work, fiber work and detailing. I have an assistant who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and whose library card I used to look at older books on art. The kind of people I have met through history for this film – for instance, the architects Victor Horta and Louis Sullivan – has been joyful.

When I met Anvitaa for Qala, she mentioned the Dutch Golden Age painters Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt. I had finished the novel The Goldfinch [whose themes include the painting of the same name by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius]. There was this haunting and darkness in the Dutch paintings.

Swastika Mukherjee and Triptii Dimri in Qala (2022). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix.

There is a lot of drama in the darkness. Qala is growing up in a house without joy, where there is always the presence of death. She later starts losing her mind. Art Nouveau articulates the distortion in your mind – there are no straight lines, no clear definition. The playing out needs to be an emotional level – the claustrophobia, the lovelessness of growing up in a house where you are resented by your own mother, and then the guilt and the confusion.

The film isn’t a documentary on that period, it’s fictional and fantastical. We had to find the emotion in the story.

How did you weave your stylistic inspiration into the production design?
There are two main houses: Qala’s Gothic house, which is luxurious, and Qala’s Art Nouveau house, where the edginess is everywhere. The furniture here is narrower. The coldness of the place comes through the discomfort of the furniture. Whoever comes to that place isn’t comfortable.

We did the walls of the Art Nouveau house in the same green moss color that is there in the Dutch artworks. There is the motif of the moth that is attracted to the flame.

Swastika Mukherjee and Triptii Dimri in Qala (2022). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix.

The Dutch artists used reflections very well, to combat the deadness of darkness. Metal in its intrinsic nature is reflective and will capture any source of light anywhere. So in Qala, you have chandeliers and mirrors. If you watch carefully, you will see that the mirror in the corridor is initially clean and later acquires stains that resemble moths.

The props include a mechanical zoetrope that belongs to Qala. I had seen one in Salvador Dali’s house in Barcelona. We got the toy imported from America. I will go for any way in which I can bring movement into a frame that is not produced by the camera. Anvita took it to the next level.

Both Veera [Kapur Ee, costume designer] and I worked with Anvitaa on the costumes. I reused some of the fabrics from Bulbul. The wallpaper in Qala was embroidered in silk by a woman in Delhi.

There is also the element of mercury, which plays an important role in the plot. I fabricated all the lights seen in the Art Nouveau house.

And there is snow – lots of it. While the exterior scenes with snow were filmed in Gulmarg, all the interiors were set in Mumbai. In Gulmarg, we found a church in the middle of the snow with two trees next to it, like out of a fairytale or a painting by the father-son painter Pieter Breughel.

For the Howrah Bridge set, we relied on black-and-white photographs of the bridge being constructed, which we found in an office located near the bridge in Kolkata.

Meenal Agarwal. Photo by Pratik Shah.

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