Director: Anvita Dutt

Cast: Tripti Dimri, Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam, Avinash Tiwary, Parambrata Chatterjee

Streaming on: Netflix

While watching Bulbbul, I realized that Clean Slate Films, the production house helmed by Anushka and Karnesh Sharma, is carefully cultivating a new sub-genre in Hindi cinema – the feminist supernatural film. After Phillauri and Pari, we have Bulbbul, which is the story of a chudail. These films upend traditional ideas of what constitutes evil and what is scary. The horror isn’t a ghost or the witch lurking in the forest. It’s the systemic oppression of women and the brutality inflicted on them by men. Women break these shackles by becoming something beyond natural. Their spirit cannot be contained.

As her name suggests, Bulbbul was always meant to be amongst the trees. We first see her as a little girl, sitting on a branch in bridal finery. The film starts in 1881 and is set in the Bengal Presidency. Bulbbul is about to be married to a much older man. When she asks her aunt why she needs to wear a toe-ring, her aunt explains that there is a nerve in the toe that needs to be pressed, otherwise the girl will fly away. Of course, it will take much more than this to control Bulbbul. The film then moves 20 years ahead when she’s a grown woman, commanding the haveli. Her brother-in-law Satya returns after five years and slowly, we unravel the mystery of Bulbbul and why men in the area are dying with such alarming consistency.

Bulbbul is the directorial debut of Anvita Dutt who has also written the story. Anvita is a well-known writer and lyricist – among other films, she’s written the dialogue for Pari and Queen. With Bulbbul, she reveals her keen eye for beauty. The film, shot by Siddharth Diwan, is visually sumptuous. Red, which symbolizes celebration, fertility and anger, is the dominant color motif, starting with the opening credits, which play out against lush red flowers. We see red on Bulbbul’s feet, which have been immersed in alta. Key scenes, including the climax, are bathed in red hues. Even the moon turns red. And of course, red is the blood being spilt.

The violence stands in sharp contrast to the film’s aesthetics, which have been inspired by the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. The looming haveli, the ornate saris and jewelry, the exquisite interiors echo Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. Like Devdas and Paro in that film, Bulbbul and Satya are childhood friends who part because he is sent away. Satya also goes to study law in London. Through childhood to adulthood, Satya has been Bulbbul’s confidante and creative partner – they write a book together. In Phillauri, Shashi, the character played by Anushka Sharma, was also a writer – clearly Anvita is interested in the inner lives of creative women. But the relationship between Satya and Bulbbul can only wreak havoc because she is married to his older brother – Indranil who also has a twin, Mahendra, both played by Rahul Bose.

In the climax, Bulbbul falls into the silly space that supernatural films often do. The action doesn’t adhere to the internal logic of the film

Bulbbul is a film about the cruelties of men and the compromises that society forces women to make. But it’s set up as a spooky, grandma’s tale. Anvita, Siddharth, production designer Meenal Agarwal, composer Amit Trivedi construct the atmospherics effectively. We get the persistent fog, the eerie sounds of the dense forest, the horse carriages in which no one can feel safe. The characters and their relationships are also etched with care. The most intriguing is Binodini, Mahendra’s wife played by the beauteous Paoli Dam. Binodini is wily. She’s provocative and political. But Anvita gives her depth by showing us, in a single scene, what her compulsions are. All the women are prisoners, which is why Binodini tells Bulbbul in hushed tones: Badi havelion mein bade raaz hote hain. 

The actors deliver assured performances. Tripti Dimri as Bulbbul seamlessly moves from being a vulnerable girl to a woman who revels in her strength. I hope though that we can someday move away from the cliché that a woman with a spine will necessarily smoke and drink. It’s nice to see Tripti reunited with her Laila Majnu co-star Avinash Tiwary. Avinash’s role is the most standard one here but he infuses it with sincerity. Parambrata Chattopadhyay is reliably good as the local doctor and Rahul delivers strong performances as the twins – one who has a glimmer of a conscience and the other who doesn’t.

Bulbbul has enough to admire but eventually Anvita trips on her own writing. The care with which the characters and setting have been detailed doesn’t extend to the plot. The narrative begins with the promise of layers, which we see in a character like Binodini, but it slowly flattens out and becomes one-note. Especially some of the male characters in the film, who are only there to be murdered. The messaging overpowers the storytelling, which deflates the grip of the film. And inevitably in the climax, Bulbbul falls into the silly space that supernatural films often do. The action doesn’t adhere to the internal logic of the film – can a chudail get hurt by a bullet? The special effects are efficiently done but when you start asking these questions, the spell is broken.

Bulbbul doesn’t coalesce into the fiery tale you hope it will become. But Anvita is a director with craft and ambition and that’s always exciting.

You can see the film on Netflix.

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