Director: Rima Das
Cast: Pakija Begam, Arnali Das, Manabendra Das, Manoranjan Das, Bonita Thakuriya
What if the protagonist of Village Rockstars were a few years older? What if she wasn’t driven by major ambition (becoming a musician)? What if she simply wanted to loll around in her village in Assam? Bulbul Can Sing, Rima Das’s follow-up to her breakout art-house hit, is about a teen named Bulbul (Arnali Das), who’s first glimpsed as a disembodied hand angled at the corner of the frame, resting near a fallen flower. Das — as always, the slacker (she’s only managed to find time to also write, produce, edit, design the production and handle the cinematography; the press notes are strangely silent about whether she’s also responsible for the sun and the rain that soak so many of her beautiful frames) — has a way of making her protagonists one with Nature. Even the Diwali celebrations at Bulbul’s house look… natural. Rows of lamps are balanced on plantain stalks, their warm glow mingling with the harsher light from crackers. And after a friend’s death, we see Bulbul playing with a grasshopper. She’s temporarily distanced herself from people. But not from life.
As with Village Rockstars, music plays a part — but it’s Bulbul’s father who wants her to become a singer. And slowly, the difference between the two films becomes apparent. Village Rockstars was an internal journey. The pressures in Bulbul Can Sing are external — from family, from society, from the patriarchy. Till the birth of her brother, Bulbul’s parents dressed her like a boy, but now, her mother is all “Girls should be modest and calm” and “Pull down your frock.” But Bulbul isn’t rebelling. In the opening scene, she’s setting up a swing on a branch, with her friends: a girl named Bonnie (Bonita Thakuriya) and a boy named Suman (Manoranjan Das). Bonnie and Suman tie the ropes, while Bulbul tests the seat for balance. It’s not a metaphor, exactly, but that’s all Bulbul wants: friends, the wide open spaces, and nothing to unbalance this idyll.
Then, a boy appears. A smitten Porag (Manabendra Das), who goes to the same school, begins to write poems to Bulbul. She reads them sprawled on her bed, with Suman sprawled out beside her. At first, this physical closeness surprised me. It took me a while to understand that Suman is gay, though nobody there probably knows the word. Suman is as much a victim of patriarchy as Bulbul. The boys at school taunt him as “Ladies”, owing to his effeminate nature — they want to pull down his pants and check what’s really in there. But Bulbul and Bonnie treat him like one of the girls. The rainbow that appears at the end is Nature’s gift to Bulbul, a sign — but it’s easy to imagine it’s a queer symbol for Suman, too. Both of them are oppressed by Man, but their essence lies in their names derived from Nature: she’s a bird, he’s a flower. Both of them need to be set free, as Nature intended them to be.
It’s Nature, again, that signals what’s to come. When Bulbul is having a quiet bath in the open area behind her house, a coconut falls from a tree with a loud crack. She’s terrified. It’s an omen — the film turns darker. A bunch of men stumble on Bulbul and Porag kissing, and what ensues is moral policing of the worst kind. This incident is necessary — it’s why Bulbul begins to transform into her own person — but it feels too loud in the Rima Das universe. Thunder and lightning are indeed part of Nature, but this scene shatters the illusion of moments being observed by a fly on the wall. Suddenly, we sense the proscenium arch. The drama is too self-conscious for a film whose tagline, from the earlier portions, could well be “a few languid days of summer…”
I was more moved by the dance of light on Bulbul’s hair, whose strands turn gold in the rays of the setting sun. She’s one with Nature.
The subsequent sections feel shaky, too. An accidental remark by Suman about a female ghost now finds a gruesome echo. And the film turns talkier. The men lament that love, these days, has become physical — unlike the spiritual love between Radha and Krishna. (They seem to have forgotten about the eroticism in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.) The women, on the other hand, fail to see what the fuss is about. After all, it’s normal for a boy and girl to kiss. Bulbul is so devastated that she disowns Suman, who was supposed to keep watch. Little does she realise that Suman would have been as powerless in front of those manly men as she and Porag, the sensitive poem-penner. For a while, patriarchy wins. The “wanton” girl has been shamed. Her boyfriend has been put in his place. The gay boy has been ostracised.
And then, very slowly, the rainbow begins to colour the sky. In the early portions in school, Bulbul is a self-conscious singer. The music teacher strikes the keys of the harmonium to indicate pitch, but Bulbul goes off-key. But what she’s doing, really, is singing her own song, unencumbered by should and shouldn’t, right and wrong. Towards the end, while gathering twigs in the rain, she hums a tune. There’s no one around to judge her, no harmonium to keep her in pitch. This is pure Rima Das. The film regains its footing, despite the stray bits of motivational-poster wisdom. In a beautiful scene set by the lakeside, Bonnie’s mother (Pakija Begum) tells Bulbul, “If you listen to people too much, your life will be ruined. Do what your heart desires.” I was more moved by the dance of light on Bulbul’s hair, whose strands turn gold in the rays of the setting sun. She’s one with Nature. A bulbul doesn’t need to be told how to sing.