Bulbbul is streaming on Netflix.
Bulbbul movie cast: Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Rahul Bose, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Paoli Dam, Ruchi Mahajan, Varun Paras Buddhadev
Bulbbul movie director: Anvita Dutt
Bulbbul movie rating: Three and a half stars
A beautiful woman is dangerous. If she smiles to herself, or is self-contained, or has the temerity to express her inner thoughts which are connected solely to her being, or isn’t automatically and permanently subservient to the men she is surrounded by, she is doubly dangerous.
Anvita Dutt’s striking debut feature is set in the late 19th century Bengal. It uses the supernatural horror genre to tell the story of a wide-eyed child bride whose quest for a kindred soul and kindness pulls her deep into peril. Bulbbul (Dimri), a free spirit who used to love climbing trees and plucking raw mangoes in her ‘maayka’, has to turn into an obedient wife to her much older husband Indranil (Bose), who lives in a big haveli, with his mentally challenged twin Mahendra (Bose again), Mahendra’s wife Binodini (Dam), and younger brother Satya.
There are so many influences jostling in Dutt’s film, which she has also written, that it’s hard to keep track: right on top is Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Chokher Bali—not just the names Binodini and Mahendra, but the messy strands of the relationship between a young widow, a child-bride and a brother-in-law. The ‘badi bahu’ reference feels like it’s harking back to Abrar Alvi’s iconic Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam. The girl-trapped-in-domesticity in Ray’s Charulata, who is shown a different world through a visitor/ interloper. And more.
And yet, Bulbbul is very much its own film, the mix of classic pre-Renaissance Bengal and desi horror gothic making for gripping viewing. It’s also one of those films whose design and soundscape is in perfect synch: Amit Trivedi’s music lulls you, and beguiles you. And, of course, red is the colour of the movie. The deep crimson palette sometimes becomes too obvious a signifier for the bloody goings-on in and around the haveli. But that’s all right, because it resonates. Because we know, don’t we, that women who cannot be contained by their ‘bichhiyas’ (toe rings worn by traditional married women) and ‘sindoor’, need to be controlled, even today. Patriarchy was alive and well then, and hasn’t gone anywhere.
Dutt uses the ancient trope of a bloodthirsty ‘chudail with ultey pair’, a familiar creature tale in our scary ‘kisse-kahaani’, to create dread and fear. The writing is skilful and stays on point, and the performances are all solid: Bose in the twin roles of the suspicious ‘thakur moshai’, as well as the man trapped in his damaged mind, Tiwary as the ‘devar’ who is a constant companion to his as-young-as-himself lovely bhabhi, Chatterjee as the ‘doctor babu’ who has a soft spot for the ‘badi bahu’. Dam is effective as the let-down ‘choti bahu’ who wreaks damage. And as the little girl who grows into a woman, her enigmatic smile hiding the pain which she harnesses to great effect, the doe-eyed Dimri is terrific.
For a film which so beautifully recreates a specific period — the thick ‘alta on the feet of the women, the shaved heads and the all-white attire of the widows, the crisp dhutis-and-fabulous shawls of the men, the ‘paalkis’ drawn by the men in service of the zamindar, — some of the lines are awkward. ‘Kaunsa aapne inka saamaan baandhna hai’, sounds much too North Indian contemporary, as does ‘aap hamaare liye chutney banaaogi’. And the corporeal shape of the ‘chudail’ becomes a little too literal, in visual translation; you wish some mystery keeps shrouding that figure.
But these are minor quibbles. Bulbbul is fashioned as a sharply relevant fable. It is a powerfully feminist, revisionist tale of a woman wronged, and it is told with economy, precision, style and feeling.