It looks like I’ve seen the most gorgeously-shot film of the year: each frame of Anvita Dutt’s sophomore feature ‘Qala’ is like an impressionist painting. The background is perfect, whether it is the snowy mountains of Himachal, or the warm, jewelled tones of a Calcutta night, with a boat gliding down the Hooghly bridge. The eye takes in the meticulousness with which the whole is constructed, and then comes to the characters in the foreground. And that may just be the thing that defines, and impacts our viewing of the film, which is about a talented young singer trying to find her voice, set in the late 30s, early 40s pre-Independence India.

Qala Manjushree (Tripti Dimri) grows up in a large mansion in a tiny Himachal hamlet, trying to please her mother Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee). That is the defining characteristic of her life, even as she takes her first tentative steps into background singing for films, going on to become as popular as the leading ladies she sings for. But whatever she does, whether winning a coveted award, or holding court in front of a group of fawning reporters, or signing autographs, she cannot shake off the feeling of inadequacy which has plagued her, her whole life.

The film is a rendering of a troubled, toxic mother-daughter relationship. More than active dislike, it is her mother’s constant choosing to unsee her which unsettles Qala as a child, and turns her into a tremulous people-pleaser as an adult, showing up in her dealings with the predatory music composer (Amit Sial), and her own inability to savour her success. The appearance of Jagan (Babil Khan), an orphan who sings like an angel, and Urmila’s absolute devotion to him, adds to her isolation. Is she really, as her disciplinarian mother puts it, ‘akal mein zero, shakal mein zero, talent mein zero’? Or is it just the older woman’s pent-up frustration coming out? If Qala is not seen or heard, who is she really? Does she even exist?

There’s a lot to like in the film. An intricate map of feelings which do not follow the conventional mother-daughter route is not something we see too often in our cinema; Dutt’s ability to create complex, full-bodied emotions, which we saw in ample measure in ‘Bullbul’, is wonderful. One of the most evocative sequences, amongst the several there are in the film, is when Qala’s first public outing, which goes off well enough, is pipped by the full-throated Jagan, who has been raised in the local gurdwara. The guru (Swanand Kirkire) of the Manjushree gharana tries to do a balancing act, but you can see who the real ‘waaris’ of the family ‘viraasat’ is.