Bulbbul Movie Review: A bewitching tale of trauma and heartbreak
Despite the horror story along the edges, the film is pivoted on its wrenching central relationship
Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul begins in 1881 and picks up twenty years after. Though the film doesn’t pause for historical context, the turn of the century setting isn’t incidental. It was a time when the Bengali Renaissance was at its peak, with Calcutta the seat of great social and cultural change. In the interiors, though, the old ways persisted. Imperious zamindars ruled with a heavy hand, orthodoxy and superstitions were rife, and the provincial hush of the era hid tales of unspeakable violence.
Cast: Tiptri Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam, Parambrata Chatterjee
Director: Anvita Dutt
Streaming on: Netflix
All of which is effortlessly distilled in an early sequence in the film. Satya (Avinash Tiwary) is returning home after finishing his studies in London. As they cross a dark forest, he’s warned about a chudail (a female tree-crawling spirit). Satya laughs it off, but his coachman is tense. He gets down to check while Satya nods off in the back. What happens next serves as a prelude to the film’s revisionist gaze: a young aristocrat, dismissive of his roots, getting sized up by his past.
A slender mix of supernatural horror and social commentary, Bulbbul — produced by Anushka Sharma and out on Netflix — is a bewitching tale of trauma and heartbreak. It sings of clipped wings and feet, capturing the injustices of a feudal world built on the subjugation and enslavement of women. Bulbbul (Tiptri Dimri) is the young, forlorn wife of a rich zamindar (Rahul Bose). She was married off as a child and grew a close friendship with her brother-in-law Satya. When their closeness spelled trouble, Satya was sent off abroad and Bulbbul was abandoned by her husband. Years later, when Satya returns, he finds her lording over their ancestral manor, her solitary existence shadowed by a series of murders (ascribed to the feared and arboreal chudail).
Anvita’s film has the allure and vividness of a fairytale. Its simple story is chopped up and told through emotionally-resonant flashbacks. Siddharth Diwan’s camera slides through walls like page-turns. Despite the horror story along the edges, the narrative is pivoted on the relationship between Bulbbul and Satya. We see glimpses of a stolen childhood, and it is through the tumultuous wrenching of these characters that the film achieves its payoff. Amit Trivedi’s score underlines this wonderfully, with aching strings and a playful chorus.
The literary companionship at the heart of the story is a likely nod to Charulata (the original Rabindranath Tagore novel, Nastanirh, was also written in 1901). The languorous rhythm of Satyajit Ray’s film is evoked in one scene, with characters idling in a mango orchard and Bulbbul on a swing. Binodini and Mahendra — Bulbbul’s in-laws — are also characters in Tagore’s Chokher Bali, another novel about patriarchy, child marriage and the exploitation of women. Paoli Dam is fetching as the green-eyed Binodini, voicing her character’s hurt in a scathingly written scene.
Avinash’s Satya is less intricate than the embroidery on his waistcoats. His luckless sleuthing becomes a joke for the grown-up Bulbbul, played with leisurely ease by Tripti. It’s a striking central performance, distinctly fraught and evocative in the two timelines of the story. Over tenderly drawn passages, we get a sense of her entire life, from a child in a palanquin to the empress of a palace. The film opens with Satya soothing Bulbbul with a scary story. It ends with her taking control of that tale. It’s a touching reversal – and a reminder that we are the stories we tell.