When a young Bulbbul, who’s about to be wedded to a much, much older man, asks her aunt the purpose of a toe-ring, she says that the toe contains a nerve that needs to be contained, or the ‘girl can fly off’. “Like a bird!” the little girl speculates.
In Anvita Dutt’s spooky film, this is a symbol and a comment on the first stage of oppression within the broader construct of marriage. The scene makes it clear what this film is about: controlling women who’re determined to question and, well, fly.
Just not in the cute way that it sounds.
For all their apparent lightness, fairy tales are often dark, morbid tales and Bulbbul fits into this mold. Set in early twentieth century Bengal, Bulbbul unspools, for most part, within the confines of a mansion that looks sprawling from the outside but whose insides are endangered by the moral decay of its inhabitants. Indranil and his mentally stunted twin Mahendra (Rahul Bose in a double role) are married to Bulbbul and Binodini but Bulbbul’s feelings for their younger brother, Satya, who she grew up around, haven’t dimmed. The character names and the interpersonal dynamics are, most certainly, a nod to Tagore’s Chokher Bali while the mansion in itself seems to be reminiscent of Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (which in turn was an adaptation of Bimal Mitra’s novel by the same name)
The narrative goes into flashback to introduce the complications of this love quadrangle (yep). In the present, Mahendra is dead and Indranil has abandoned the mansion. The two women, free from their partners, live by themselves in a village gripped by a series of murders, believed to be committed by a ‘witch.’ Satya, who was packed off to London, returns to the village, determined to debunk the rumour. A person of science, he says it’s a “human” who’s behind the killings, most likely a man. “Why can’t it be a woman?” Bulbbul, who’s grown out of her youthful adoration for him, retorts.
The most striking quality about Bulbbul is Siddharth Dewan’s cinematography and Meenal Agarwal’s imposing production design, both blending seamlessly to create a world that seems to rest at the intersection of reality and fantasy. The film’s high-contrast colour palette signals its stylistic ambition, sucking you into its strange reality where everything ― the doors, the passageways, the chandeliers, even the vermilion ― appear ominous, their eeriness heightened by Amit Trivedi’s background score that reverberates like an adult lullaby, a melancholic cry of death, desperation and despair.
It’s as if Dutt is giving us a very specific yet universally-imagined visual recreation of grandmother tales where everything was hyper-dramatised for effect. Bulbbul mirrors that idea, ticking off everything from spooky mansion to creepy husbands to absent villagers. The mansion is a universe in itself and will collapse under the weight of its own incestuous secrets. It’s also the place where the princess is metaphorically imprisoned, its imposing walls and sturdy bars literally making it resemble a festering penitentiary. Unlike in fairy-tales and more like in real life, there are no guardians here. It’d have been a travesty if the stand-in for the audience ― Satya ― would’ve turned into a male savior, which would reinforce the problematic status quo: that men will violate women and then rescue them too. Dutt carefully avoids this trap.
The women in this film don’t need one either. Their bondage is inflicted by men but emancipation is entirely driven by self. Which brings us to the film’s big idea: abuse. Dutt’s screenplay may take place in a fantastical space but it captures the all-pervasive, relentless cycle of abuse that’s as present now as it was before.
The film features graphic scenes of prolonged abuse but this serves a very specific purpose: by foregrounding female pain, Dutt compels us to confront the horrors of that lived experience, instead of cutting away from it to something more comforting. She isn’t using violence as a trope or a cheap device to advance a horror story but as something that’s at the very core of her storytelling.
The film’s ‘big twist’ is yes, predictable and it’s unclear if the makers were aware of this. In one scene, the ‘reveal’ is even spelt out but Satya — played by Avinash Tiwary — still doesn’t seem to catch on, in what feels disingenuous. It sucks when the audience is ahead of the characters, where one cracks a mystery much before those who’re expected to.
But Bulbbul’s scenes are constructed with precision and lyrical beauty, it’s almost as if Sanjay Leela Bhansali went on a self-imposed exile, discovered his freak and returned as a goth kid: realising that his cinematic soul is closer to del Toro than to Baz Luhrmann.
The film’s ultimate payoff isn’t about the ‘who’ as much as it is about how the film reaches there. Which it does with efficiency and style, the discomfort compounding with every scene. It’s led by a competent cast, on top of which is Tripti Dimri. Hiding her wounds behind a wholesome smile, Dimri captures her character’s brokenness and the steely spirit she’s derived from it. Nothing breaks you more than the betrayal of adolescent romance. And yet, the film argues, the tendency of men to control and repress and eventually abandon, emotionally or physically, only grows with time.
Rahul Bose is perfect. Nothing conveys emotional neglect and entitled manhood better than Bose’s uptight demeanor. Having played a variation of this character — barring the abuse of course — in Dil Dhadakne Do, he’s terrific as a gentle monster, someone who lets out very little about what he’s thinking even when he’s thinking and scheming a lot more.
Avinash Tiwary, last seen in Ghost Stories, is in command of his role here, capturing his bafflement and intrigue and determination in equal measure. Paoli Dam, who’s always been an exceptional actor, deserved a better arc and a clearer backstory, but she excels quietly, fanning the flames of jealousy in soap-operatic fashion.
Which sums up Bulbbul: it’s a hyper stylistic soap opera that borrows from folklore and, rips apart the misogyny of ‘chuddail’ and ultimately turns into a revenge fest, entertaining the kind of questionable justice that’s so far from being attained in reality that it can exist only in fantasies.
While the end of the film doesn’t satisfy or justify the built-up, it’s commendable that Anushka Sharma — producer of Bulbbul is consistently pushing boundaries.
Her past productions — NH 10, Phillauri, Pari, Paatal Lok and now, Bulbbul, can all be tied together as nearly all of them explore and embrace adventurous storytelling and carry within them, a feminist spirit. She also continues to introduce and platform a new breed of filmmakers — Anvita Dutt being the latest visionary — who are ambitious and, like Bulbbul herself, not bound by toe rings meant to control their freedoms.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.