Bulbbul is produced by Anushka Sharma's production outfit (she runs it with her brother), and it shares a few similarities with another film from this company: Pari. Both titles refer to winged creatures: one's a bird, the other an angel. And both times, these wings are clipped: either literally or metaphorically, the female protagonists end up chained. Both stories are set in Bengal: Pari in present-day Kolkata, Bulbbul in the Bengal Presidency in the latter part of the 19th Century. Both films weave in horror elements, but neither is a "horror movie". They are instead, curious marriages of wildness and domesticity, the real and the supernatural, the feral and the feminine. Very early on in Bulbbul, the word "khoon" (blood) — uttered by a male — is juxtaposed over the image of a child bride leaving bright-red footprints with the alta painted on her soles. Ask me if there's a loose thesis statement in the film, and I'll propose this: A witch is a woman, too.
Writer-director Anvita Dutt (who wrote another ghostly film for the same production company, Phillauri) sets her story in an eerie fantasy world. Despite the timeframe, not a single Britisher is seen: there's just the odd reference to the Raj. The film opens with Bulbbul as a tiny thing (she's played as a grown-up by Tripti Dimri) being married off to Indranil (Rahul Bose). She's surrounded by people who have gathered for the wedding, but Indranil's mansion doesn't even seem to have servants. We don't see the child growing into a woman, but we can sense how terrifying all that space would have been, and why Bulbbul must have clung to Indranil's youngest brother, the age-appropriate Satya (Avinash Tiwary).
The eeriness is accentuated by the lack of character detailing (deliberate, I think). For instance, why is this odd marriage happening, or what happened to Indranil's earlier wife/wives? Like the haveli, the people in it seem desolate, too, cut off from their pasts and defined only by the present.
Cut to 20 years later, Satya is returning home in a horse-drawn carriage, after a stint in London. The utter artifice of the scene (Siddharth Diwan is the cinematographer) is breathtaking. The night isn't silvery. It's bathed by a blood-red moon that no one seems to find odd. I was reminded of how Francis Ford Coppola wilfully bent the physical world we know into strange shapes in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but Bulbbul seems to take its inspiration from another work of literature: Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. (We get a "Sherlock" name-drop.)
The fearsome hound is replaced by a fearsome witch, who resides in the forest and appears to be killing off the men of the village. Satya plays the Holmes character, a realist who refuses to believe this "legend". Like Holmes, he declares he's not interested in marriage, and Avinash Tiwary's longish face and lanky frame actually made me imagine him in a greatcoat and a deerstalker hat.
Underneath the flimsy find-the-killer "detective story", however, is the film's real reason for existence. Except for a visiting physician (Dr. Sudip, played by Parambrata Chattopadhyay), the haveli is bereft of men. Indranil has gone off somewhere (we'll learn why later, though this is not really a film that invites you to wonder about these why-s). His mentally stunted twin, Mahendra, is one of those who've been murdered. And through these absent men (including Satya, who is physically present, but empathetically absent), the director — with her two female characters, Bulbbul and Mahendra's widow Binodini (a very moving Paoli Dam) — shows us how women turn into "witches".
Binodini is the kind of woman we usually call a witch (or a more slangy word that rhymes with it): she seems evil, a "vamp", a schemer whose favourite pastime is to stir up cauldrons of mischief between people. But in the film's most affecting scene, woven around an incapacitated and bedbound Bulbbul, we see that life has done a number on her. (This scene is coded in shades of blue, contrasting with the ones drenched in red.) Binodini was probably one of those child brides, too. She was probably unaware of the magnitude of Mahendra's sickness. Her only consolation was an existence filled with jewels and silks and the title of "the woman of the house", and after Bulbbul's arrival — and because Indranil's the older of the twins — even that was snatched away. You can see why this woman turned into a "witch".
Life has done a number on Bulbbul, too. She's literally a witch — though how much of this drama can or will be taken literally will depend on the viewer. There's, first, that rotten marriage. The film's opening image is that of the little girl's feet, hanging freely from the branch of a tree. After marriage, those very feet are bound in bandages — thanks to a thrashing by a madly jealous Indranil, who suspects her of having an affair with Satya — and they "turn" backwards. The screenplay's conceit is that "turned feet" (ulte pair) are the mark of a witch. Indranil, thus, literally transforms his wife into a witch.
Rahul Bose isn't on screen much and he doesn't speak much, but he's been cast well. He takes us deep into Indranil's patriarchal cruelty and Mahendra's madness. He plays both aspects so coolly and casually that we feel their sting all the more. See how gently Indranil chides Mahendra when the latter lays a finger on the newly arrived child bride. See how all his anger about the "affair" is expended on Bulbbul, without a word being uttered to Satya, who is an equal participant in this imagined scenario.
But then, Satya's emotional violence with Bulbbul, his childhood friend/confidante, is a greater tragedy than Indranil's physical violence. The first time he narrates a story about a witch — when he and Bulbbul are children — it appears to be a simple fairytale. But when, as a grown-up, he narrates a similar story to her, it comes off like a cautionary tale about women who cross the lines drawn around their lives. Like his brother, he, too, suspects Bulbbul of having an affair, with Dr. Sudip. (I enjoyed watching Parambrata Chattopadhyay as this mild-mannered prole who's besotted with the regal Bulbbul, but is aware of the lines drawn around his life.)
But if Bulbbul is devastated by Satya's "transformation" from friend/confidante to a finger-wagging patriarch-in-waiting (i.e., a junior Indranil), she doesn't show it. As her cool reception of Satya (when he returns) showed, a part of her died when he left for London. The scene where Indranil decides to pack his youngest brother off to study law is a stunner. Bulbbul is distraught. Satya, however, is thrilled. He doesn't seem to care that he will be abandoning his friend/confidante. He doesn't see why she is so upset. He seems to be echoing the clinical Holmes from The Adventure of the Lion's Mane: "Women have seldom been an attraction to me for my brain has always governed my heart."
And thus, when Satya returns and proves no different from his brother, Bulbbul simply says: Tum sab ek jaise ho. (You are all the same.) Tripti Dimri sketches out these shades beautifully, but special mention must go to her makeup person and costumer, too, who "age" the character convincingly. Flight is a constant metaphor, from the character's name to the sight of the witch against the skies to the image of Ravana kidnapping Sita while fighting off Jatayu. When Bulbbul's aunt slips a toe-ring on the little girl, during the wedding ceremony, she says it's to prevent women from "flying away", which is essentially another way of saying that this ornamental symbol of marriage is to keep women "in control".
I wish the framework-narrative had been worked out better, but when I thought back about the film, I found myself increasingly thankful that the "gaps" hadn't been filled in. What we're left with is a fever-dreamscape quasi-giallo movie, which transforms the pulp premise of a female vigilante (who could be from cinema, like Dimple Kapadia in Zakhmi Aurat, or someone we know from real life, like Phoolan Devi, or even a mythical figure like Kali Ma) into something very human and emotional and deeply mysterious. I loved the touch that a near-dead Bulbbul is resuscitated by Nature Herself, whose anger seems evident in how red the moon becomes and how important fire is in the narrative, whether it's in the burning of a diary or the flames that consume a forest. The film's imagery may be teasingly ambiguous, but the "hell hath no fury" messaging couldn't be clearer.