There is a song in Queen (2013) called “Badra Bahar” that opens with these lines: ‘Babul ke angna mein, amva ke tale’ (it roughly translates ‘In the shade of the mango tree, in my father’s house’). And a line in the next stanza goes: ‘Jhoothi…jhoothi, kahaani pariyon ki’ (‘Lies, lies, all these fairytales’). Queen is not a fairytale, at least not in the traditional sense, but the song, composed by Amit Trivedi and written by Anvita Dutt, talks about the lies that girls are taught in their childhood. With distorted electric guitars and irreverent, grungy vocals, it’s like a revolt against that childhood. Dutt, the lyricist of that song, has now made her first film as a director. And it opens with a girl, the titular character Bulbbul, perched on a tree surrounded by birdsong, as is natural for a girl her age in late 1800s Bengal.
Soon, her pishi (aunt) gets a little boy called Satya along with her, as if bringing her a companion. It’s not until a couple of scenes later that we see the dark twist to it: Bulbbul is oblivious to the fact that she is being married off to Satya’s elder brother, Indranil (Rahul Bose), a man much older to her—an act which in any case is beyond the comprehension of a 5-year-old. It’s almost as if Bulbbul was tricked into the marriage, lured with the promise of a potential playmate. Lies, all lies.
Not that it stops her from being in love with her brother-in-law, even if secretly, as in the women’s stories of Rabindranath Tagore, particularly “Nastanirh” (based on which Satyajit Ray made Charulata). When he returns from London, where he had been sent to study law, there is the hint of a rekindling of a childhood romance, as in Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s “Devdas”.
In Dutt’s film, Satyadev (Avinash Tiwary) is the Disney prince with the saviour complex: well-meaning, yet a bit misogynistic; but her Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) needs no saving. “Those are the lies. I am saying no one’s coming to save you. Except yourself,” Dutt says over Zoom call on the day of the film’s release on Netflix.
“The original stories were dark. But over the years, Colonial culture came in, everything was made into Vanilla. There was censorship.” Some of these were origin stories of demons, a surprising number of them women.
Instead, her film goes back to an earlier form of these stories, when they were indigenous folk tales, unvarnished by Victorian morality, even feminist in a sense. “The original stories were dark. But over the years, Colonial culture came in, everything was made into Vanilla. There was censorship.” Some of these were origin stories of demons, a surprising number of them women, such as shakchunni, petni, dakini, chudail, many of who have “sad, human pasts”. “A chudail, for example, is born when a woman dies of violence, and of sexual violence specifically,” she says.
If Bulbbul sounds like a literal realisation—and subversion—of the fairytale Dutt referred in that song from Queen, a certain lyrical quality seeps into all departments of the film as well. It’s in the casting of Tripti Dimri as the grown-up Bulbbul, glassy-eyed and brittle, as if a little girl is encased in her, who laughs as though she is half-drunk, and too pleased with herself; the actor was finalised after two months of audition, because she has the “clear gaze of a child”. It’s in the spoken language in the film, recognisably old world but easy-on-the-ears and not too ornate (Dutt has been a dialogue writer in a number of Hindi films).
It’s in the imagery: the Bengal of Dutt’s imagination is exotic, full of flora and fauna, and classical in the way a Raja Ravi Varma painting is (cinematographer Siddharth Diwan; production designer Meenal Agarwal). It’s in the song selection that evoke a certain imagery; the Rabindra sangeet, “Shedin Dujone”, for instance, paints a picture of a woods in a moonlit light and two lovers (suggested by the film’s actress Paoli Dam while on the set and recorded in her voice in sync sound). It’s in the lush, almost song-less score by his composer (and friend) Trivedi, who didn’t even read the script, and composed based on the final cut; “We have probably used more score than dialogue in the film,” says Dutt.
Around the time Bulbbul is set, there was a Renaissance happening in Bengal, too. The Brahmo Samaj had already been started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore. Social reforms such as Widow Remarriage has been brought in; child marriages were being frowned upon. “There was this progressive faction was arising, men and woman alike,” says Dutt
Dutt—who has written the screenplays of Shaandaar and Phillauri, both of which have a fairy tale quality— pares a large part of the story down to four characters of the house, conspicuous with the absence of mother and sister figures. The characterisation is careful, deliberate. In terms of age, the chhoti bahu, Binodini (Paoli Dam), should be the badi bahu—but not by title. By virtue of being married to the lesser of the brothers, the mentally unstable Mahendra, she is the chhoti bahu. That’s probably because she is dark-skinned compared to Bulbbul, who has an edge over her on account of being fair skinned, a complex that keeps eating at Dam’s character.
Adding to the playful confusion in their inter-relationship is Indranil and Mahendra being twins; add further that they exploit each others’ wives. Does the twinning suggest that to Bulbbul, Indranil and Mahendra are one and the same, because all she ever loved was Satya? The writing has a fable-like simplicity, leaving ample room for such reading between the lines, and Dutt is able to locate in it matters of social evil and inequality without spoon-feeding the audience—although the same can’t be said about the dissatisfying final act of the film, where the ‘message’ is too on the nose and the design all too visible.
“I was having fun with it. These people within these four walls become the microcosm of the world: our idea of power, hierarchy, beauty plays out in these tiny, almost everyday occurrences between the characters,” says Dutt.
She adds that although Indranil and Mahendra do monstrous things, the film doesn’t intend to show them as monsters. “They are victims, as much as Binodini is a victim of her circumstances. I found it really sad that these man are trapped in worlds that are being created for them. And they are acting out how they have been conditioned to act out. In that sense they become more tragic than Bulbbul. Bulbbul is the least tragic character in the story, though the worst things happen to her, because she becomes empowered,” she says.
Around the time Bulbbul is set, there was a Renaissance happening in Bengal, too. The Brahmo Samaj had already been started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore. Social reforms such as Widow Remarriage has been brought in; child marriages were being frowned upon. “There was this progressive faction was arising, men and woman alike,” says Dutt, “The strange thing was that change was not seeping into the thakurbaris. The men would be going out for those meetings. But the culture was so strong that nothing seems to be changing within the walls of the house.”
That’s where the character of Dr Sudeep (played by Parambrata Chatterjee, who’s creating a niche for himself playing progressive Bengali men in woman-centric Hindi films) came in: a local doctor who seems to be on the same page as Bulbbul, and who gives the impression that he might be part of some kind of a secret society. “He is my Raja Rammohan Roy like figure in this story,” says Dutt, “Where nothing of the outside world is allowed in, this man, kind of, slips in.”
Dutt is not a Bengali but she is obsessed with everything about Bengal, which has a reputation as a land for such stories as Bulbbul. “How, when you write a certain kind of fairy tale in Western culture it’s always usually in the Black forest—where the German, Czechoslovakia, Polish borders intersect and that’s where all the Brothers Grimm tales come from, certain places are seeped in mythology, they have a certain magical quality and beauty to it, that this is the kind of place where it might happen. Bengal spoke to me like that,” she says.
She makes at least one annual trip to Kolkata, during which she likes to stay in a certain part of the city: the Triangular Park-Gariahat stretch, with its traditional and boutique sari shops, and tea and phuchka stalls, and where the houses have a distinct style—and for that she is thankful to two of her filmmaker-friends from the city, Sujoy Ghosh and Devashish Makhija.
During her stays, she makes sure to visit the Lake Kali Bari—not because she is very religious, but she is taken by how the Kali idol in the temple looks: happy and cute, words you don’t associate with the goddess of the dark. Two years ago, she took a picture of it and sent it to Meenal Agarwal, the production designer of Bulbbul; the Kali in the film looks exactly like it.