Director: Anvita Dutt
Cast: Tripti Dimri, Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam, Avinash Tiwary, Parambrata Chatterjee
Streaming on: Netflix
On the eve of the boy's departure to London, the girl meets him in the courtyard. "How will we ever complete this story?" she asks tearfully. The story she refers to is a book they've been writing together. It has both their names – Bulbbul Chaudhary and Satyajeet Thakur – on the cover. But what he doesn't realise is that she is also asking about their story: Bulbbul, former child bride and lady of a countryside manor, and Satya, her adoring brother-in-law. She is devastated that her childhood companion is leaving. The adults have no time for her adolescence. She only ever married into a life of diminished royalty – her stoic husband (Rahul Bose), his mentally disabled brother (Rahul Bose) and the brother's cunning wife (Paoli Dam) – because Satya lent some truth to her living.
This scene is infused with an unmistakable sense of literature: a book, a story, lyrical names, an untold tragedy. It reflects the textual legacy of the entire film: a period-fantasy reimagination of the unrequited relationship between Bengali laureate Rabindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi. Like Nastanirh, the semi-autobiographical novella that inspired Satyajit Ray's Charulata ("The lonely wife"), Bulbbul, too, is set in the Bengal Presidency of 1901 – a British-Indian world where bhadraloks expect from their housewives the kind of silent subservience that the rulers expect from their latest Asian colony. The leads are Tripti Dimri and Avinash Tiwary, actors who last starred together in Laila Majnu, another film based on a famous literary work of star-crossed love. For a narrative inspired by director Anvita Dutt's affection for words, perhaps it's both ironic and fitting that Bulbbul wears the distinct visual aura of a dreamer.
NH10 was a bleak revenge thriller, Phillauri a supernatural family drama, Pari a supernatural folk-horror fantasy – and Bulbbul is a haunting combination of all these themes
Its foundation might be paper, but Bulbbul is a film of sight and sound. The nights leak ruby redness, the colour of danger and courage and menstruation. Bulbbul's abusive marriage also evokes the profound BoJack Horseman line: When you look at someone through rose-coloured glasses, all the red flags just look like flags. Similarly, when we look at the rose-tinted screen, all the blood just looks like water. This tone informs a movie that is essentially centered on the myth of a man-eating "chudail" (she-demon). The past bleeds blue, the colour of trust and royalty and masculinity. A woman's bare feet become a recurring theme, both in sickness and in health, as if to subvert the idea of small feet amounting to the right "measure" for marital life; jewellery and toe-rings are framed as symbols of control.
In context of how it reconstructs feminism as a genre, Bulbbul follows in the footsteps of every Anushka Sharma film production (Clean Slate Films) so far. NH10 was a bleak revenge thriller, Phillauri a supernatural family drama, Pari a supernatural folk-horror fantasy – and Bulbbul is a haunting combination of all these themes. Siddarth Diwan's striking cinematography and Meenal Agarwal's production design turn its palette into a goth-pop portrait of contrasts. A scene featuring a wounded woman bandaged in her bed morphs into a morbid symbol of broken puppetry. Another, featuring a forest fire, becomes a violent dance of primary colours.
The Bulbbul score is a rare instance where the music, too, tells a hidden story – of blossoming not by will but by necessity. Of saving in order to be saved
But the dark-fairytale vibe is driven home by Amit Trivedi's score. The violin-heavy central tune is nursery-rhyme deceptive at first, but it builds into a melancholic Bhansali-like crescendo – the aural equivalent of a lonely peacock finally spreading her wings. (Bulbbul even uses a peacock-feather pankh to fan herself, as if it were an extension of her hands). The way the images are conceived, cut and merged can only have been written to music. Too often, original soundtracks are composed to punctuate emotions and manipulate the viewer into feeling. The Bulbbul score is a rare instance where the music, too, tells a hidden story – of blossoming not by will but by necessity. Of saving in order to be saved. It makes us hear a concept that can't be spelt out. It's a bit like the perceptive casting of Parambrata Chattopadhyay, again, as a #NotAllMen character. For the third time, the soft-faced Bengali actor has been cast as a noble man in a sea of monsters – the outsider in sync with misfitted protagonists – in a Bengal-based Hindi film. The reel-real duality works, especially within the spatial surrealism of Bulbbul, where his plain doctor-attire is at odds with an environment of silk sarees and crisp waistcoats.
But perhaps the biggest story lies in the film's use of the "Laila-Majnu couple". Avinash Tiwary plays a boy on the verge of toxic manhood. There's an ethereal otherness about Tripti Dimri, who plays two versions, and whose face becomes the human incarnation of violin strings. By reuniting them, Bulbbul weaponizes our perception of two actors who made a name for themselves by performing unrequited love through a male gaze. If their previous film pivoted on the aftermath of Majnu, this one fetishizes the future of Laila. That storytelling lies at the core of Bulbbul is in line with the fact that the definitive feminist thriller of modern Hindi cinema is named Kahaani.
In a way, the literary roots of such movies suggest that – while male heartbreak can be immortalized by madness – female heartache is storified by sadness. It's not enough for the girl to cry and scream in a courtyard. She must change a story rather than become one; she must make history rather than shape it. But maybe it's enough that, in bygone eras and otherworldly Indias, she doesn't need to be rescued anymore.