Indian actor Babil Khan, the son of late acting legend Irrfan Khan, was grappling with the loss of his beloved father to cancer when he began working on his career’s first film ‘Qala’, out on Netflix now.
The stunningly beautiful and dark psychological drama, directed by Anvita Dutt of ‘Bulbbul’ fame, chronicles the life of a troubled and talented musician (Tripti Dimri as Qala), who’s desperate for validation from her iconic musician mother (Swastika Mukherjee).
Enter Jagan (Babil), the musically gifted orphan who gets intertwined in their fractured lives and unwittingly deepens the mother-daughter rift.
“I was going through something so dark and morbid outside of the sets that acting in this film became cathartic … Somewhere I had art to express what I was feeling outside the sets. It was a great form of catharsis,” said Babil in an joint interview with Gulf News over Zoom with co-star Dimri.
Two years ago, his iconic father — who had starred in a raft of solid Bollywood and international films such as ‘The Namesake' and ‘English Medium’ — died at the age of 53 after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
Babil was struggling to find closure from the personal tragedy that had struck his life in his early 20s. But being surrounded by the superlative talents of ‘Qala’ helped him soldier on.
“It’s a rarity in our industry to find real friends who look out for you … With Anvita, Tripti, and Swastika, I felt there was truth to our relationship from the bottom of my heart … I was thrown into my first film and came on after having just lost my father … But Tripti — whom I had most of my scenes with — made it so comfortable. There was no pressure. She was so giving as an actor and you have to understand that she’s the lead of this film,” said Babil.
His last sentence, where he acknowledges and gives due credit to his female co-star, was a telling sign of his close dynamic and bond with Dimri, who does the heavy lifting in her titular role in ‘Qala’.
The film, which opened to largely positive reviews, also enjoyed a thunderous showcase at the recent International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa and was hailed for its complex themes like the friction between mother and daughter, fear, insecurities and hatred. But this unhinged tale of a fragile musician and her delicate mind came alive because of their collective camaraderie and the intense/democratic workshops led by director Dutt.
“Tripti was a very, very, very giving as an actor … She was shooting every day since 5am and I had a few days to shoot in the middle. But even though she was so tired or had cried the entire day for a scene, she stayed there for me. Even though it’s a dark film, I was surrounded by people who I knew will take care of me if I fall. And that emotion is so sacred,” said Babil.
In a separate interview with Gulf News on the sidelines of IFFI — just before ‘Qala’ was screened for the discerning festival audience in Goa — director Dutt let us in on why she cast Babil in a crucial role.
“I auditioned more than 40 boys for this role and Babil was in one of the auditions. He was very raw and I felt that quality in him works for this village boy who was so awkward,” said Dutt.
In ‘Qala’, Babil’s character is like a soothing balm in a world where this mother-daughter duo, fraught with tension, fear and a hint of jealousy, are battling their inner demons.
To put it simply, Qala and her iconic musician-mother Urmila Manjushree are no idealised ‘Gilmore Girls’ mother-daughter pair. In ‘Qala’, the fragile waif-like protagonist yearns for her exacting and glacial mother’s validation.
‘Qala’, produced by actress Anushka Sharma's brother Karnesh, is a bold and nuanced departure from the usual saccharine mother-daughter relationships shown in Bollywood films where everything and everyone is hunky-dory. In ‘Qala’, Swastika plays a nasty matriarch with aplomb, while her doe-like daughter balks from her cold demeanour.
“I wanted to totally break that … I wanted to tell a story about not the way people show mothers and daughters in films. The reality is very different. I had to push the envelope on that relationship to feel the jagged edges. I needed to give all paper cuts while you watched this film,” said Dutt, whose 2020 fantasy adventure ‘Bulbbul’ was a searing female-fronted fantasy thriller.
Forget paper cuts, ‘Qala’ is one of those films about female breakdowns which are hauntingly disturbing and makes you feel unsettled long after it finishes. The film explores mental health in all its inglorious and frustrating detail.
Naturally, filming Qala’s agony and pathos wasn’t easy, says actress Dimri.
“Some days were tough and some were easy … When you get into something like this, it’s important to have good people around you … Even on the most difficult days of filming, we were always relaxed. There was no stress on set, no yelling, or throwing things around. When we had difficult scenes, all those around us were extremely kind to us so that we were comfortable,” said Dimri. It’s her second time of working with director Dutt and her titular roles. After playing the feisty Bulbbul, the self-made actress Dimri dove deep into the psyche of an artiste who has deep insecurities about her family, her talents, and her very existence.
“Anvita’s sets are usually quiet and there’s never any pressure to deliver the lines in a particular span of time. She doesn’t put that kind of pressure on her actors. She will give you time. Time is often a luxury for actors on a set, since there are people holding lights or the sun is going down … But she was never like you have to finish three scene in a day … She said: ‘I will fail as a director I can’t pull honesty out of you in that particular moment’. We were given that liberty as actors,” said Dimri.
Apparently, both Babil and Dimri stayed on for the scenes even if their backs were facing the camera to help the other co-star out.
“If I had to do a scene and Babil had to fully emote and cry, he was there doing just that even if his back was to the camera. Acting is all about give and take. It’s not about just one person delivering the line. What makes ‘Qala’ powerful and beautiful is that give and take,” said Dimri. They had intense workshops where they asked each other questions about the characters, the plot twists, and the why behind each scene. By the end of the workshops, they had pages of hand-written comments.
Another interesting part about ‘Qala’ is that the characters in this film aren’t wholly likeable. So was it tough not to judge your own characters?
“The human practice to develop a skill where you do not judge somebody or something or look at something without personal bias takes real practice … And if you do that in real life, it carries onto your craft. I don’t judge anybody in life and I don’t judge my characters on-screen. And that worked for ‘Qala’ too,” said Babil. While he uttered those fatalistic words, you are instantly reminded of his late father’s glorious free-spirited attitude towards life. Point that to Babil and he goes:
“It’s so strange right that I look like baba [his father Irrfan Khan]. Even when I look at myself in the mirror, I am reminded of him … I look a lot like him,” said Babil.
We couldn’t agree more. Just like his father who was adventurous with his career, here’s his son who has taken a plunge into Bollywood with an unorthodox debut. And he has our heart.
Don’t Miss It!
‘Qala’ is streaming on Netflix now.