Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul emerges as a feminist supernatural rendition of a traditional fairy tale that draws the viewer in with its meticulously crafted shots and melancholic music. It’s a powerful feminist retelling of outdated myths and stories with a crimson theme that spells the trauma and pain caused by patriarchy. It’s riveting from the beginning, with a beautiful but ominous introduction with visuals of symbols foreshadowing the key events in the movie. The setting of the movie is in 1881 in Colonial India and located in the Bengal Presidency. Tripti Dimri plays Bulbbul, a precocious child that her aunt pushes into wedlock with an affluent Zamindar, Indranil played by Rahul Bose. This was almost a century before the Indian Law banned child marriage.
Bulbbul meets Satya in a carriage taking her to her marital home. Satya played by Avinash Tiwari is Indranil’s younger brother, almost Bulbbul’s age. Satya, sensitive to her fear and confusion, narrates a story to her about a demon-woman that dwells in the forest.
Anvitta Dutt addresses the traditional trope of a witch, a demon-woman and humanises her. In traditional fairy-tales, the witch is evil, lonely, manipulative and eccentric, qualities that dare be in a woman. Fairy tales often demonised a whimsically unconventional woman as a witch, laden with malice towards society. Dutta reverses that myth and digs deeper into where it comes from.
On the night of the wedlock, Mahendra also played by Rahul Bose, Indranil’s intellectually challenged twin brother makes unsettling advances towards Bulbbul, a child. This is when Binodhini played by Paoli Dam, rushes in to take him away. Binodhini is Mahendra’s wife, a victim of patriarchy that had herself become an accomplice to perpetuating it. After establishing the characters, the movie skips to 20 years later. Satya, an adult now, returns to the village from London, dressed like Jonathan Harker, he starts an expedition to find the ‘chudail’. Now, the movie begins to follow a non-linear timeline. It cuts to flashbacks from the past and to fill the gaps in the present.
Bulbbul: forced to grow up and save herself
Bulbbul carries herself as an aloof but poised woman with an enigmatic smile. A smile that acts as a mask for the unforgettable trauma she’s faced. She brushes off all subtle snide remarks about her not following social norms of femininity with ease. It almost seems like nothing can faze her. The movie shows a huge shift in her character before and after Indranil and Mahendra wronged her. In the flashbacks, Bulbbul was expressive, naive, passionate about writing and deeply in love with Satya. But her love with Satya came to a tragic end when Indranil strategically sent him to London.
The stoic Indranil when found out about their secret rendezvous, decided to punish Bulbbul in the cruellest way possible. The scene where he broke her legs and mercilessly beat her is quite disturbing but the audience can’t hear her screams. The movie deliberately mutes her screams but the visuals still remain impactful. A symbol for how despite her howling in excruciating pain, nobody in the house tried to help her.
The rape scene as well is painfully long, a representation of the devastating effect it has on the victim. We see her screaming in horror and eventually losing her voice and turning still like a lifeless entity. A terrifying state that a person reaches after crossing their trauma threshold.
The intricate symbolism and their meanings
There is heavy symbolism of the colour red that signifies danger, marriage, menstruation and violence. Bulbbul was wearing the colour red during her early wedlock. When Indranil is beating her we see a splash of red fall on him. And the same red becomes a sign of rape when doctor Sudip, played by Parambrata Chatterjee, notices specks of blood on her inner thigh. The colour red during the marriage becomes a symbol of subservience by the woman and then later becomes a symbol of traumatic violence that stains the victim’s psychology.
Mahendra calling Bulbbul ‘gudia’ right from her childhood to the night he raped her, shows how men view women as inanimate objects for their pleasure. A gudia who’s only purpose is to look pretty and be played with. The toe-ring, symbolic for keeping the girl in control or restricting her, returns when Binodhini asks Bulbbul to get a new toe ring, as ‘hers had become loose’, referring to her secret meetings with Satya.
Apart from symbols, an integral part of the film was Amit Trivedi’s music composition. The violin-heavy tune starts off fairy-tale like feel but morphs into a melancholic crescendo, inciting powerful emotions. It makes us listen to how people around Bulbbul forced her to grow up. And her disappointment when she realises the truth about Satya. She realised that her only companion was siding with patriarchy and not her.
An unconventional way of storytelling
Making a feminist film with such an unconventional genre of horror gives Dutt immense credibility as a first-time filmmaker. She uses the witch trope with details that overlap with real-life making it a surreal experience. The chudail becomes human when the reason for her reversed legs was shown to be a man. A man that deformed her body and mind. The real horror isn’t the witch, it’s all the injustices that’s happened to her in the past.
The performances of the actors are brilliant. Rahul Bose captures the essence of the prideful and stoic ‘Thakur’ and as an intellectually challenged man. Paoli Dam’s performance particularly is very convincing, her tone and voice modulation shows all the manipulation she’s had to endure. Her presence as the only other woman is comforting at times but doesn’t help Bulbbul as Binodhini is a damaged pawn in the game of patriarchy.
Bulbbul uses the horror and fairy tale genre to entrap the audiences. It’s true that some events, the audience can see coming from a mile away. But it is the hypnotising visuals, surrealism and emotive soundtrack that compels the viewer to stay for the whole of 94 minutes of the movie.