Back in 1962, in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Abrar Alvi took us in to one of the many crumbling havelis of a decaying feudal Bengal. Mansions in which the desires of lonely women are throttled by unfaithful aristocratic husbands, where they strike undefined relationships with other men without quite being able to take them to a logical conclusion. In her debut film, Bulbbul, which starts off in Bengal Presidency in 1881, Anvita Dutt does something similar but adds to the locale. She mixes the feudal with the supernatural and the spooky, the mythological and the fablesque to strike at the putrid core of patriarchy in a thoughtful, moving, engaging and powerful manner.
A word —vash (control) — and an image, that of bichchue (toe rings), conveys it all about the lot of young girls. Bulbbul, a child bride, arrives in the Thakur family thinking life is all about fun and games with Satya, her devar (husband’s younger brother), who is her own age. Not quite. Over time the rot in the haveli begins to reveal itself. It’s a world of twisted relationships, dysfunctional families and perversions. The women inside it — Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) and Binodini (Paoli Dam) — are competitors, always in a game of one upmanship and insinuations, giving it back to each other with wordplay.
However, they also bond in an indistinct but sinewy sisterhood in a space that denies them anything private. As Bulbbul’s husband Indranil (Rahul Bose) asks her rhetorically: “Ek patni ka uske pati ke alawa kya niji ho sakta (What can be personal for a wife other than her husband)?” Sharm (shame), maryada (propriety), sahi (right), galat (wrong) — that’s all that seems to govern a woman’s life.
Bulbbul doesn’t baulk from showing extreme violence and violation. A doll here, the talk of broken bones there, a reference to falling down the stairs of the house —bit by bit the hints at the intrinsic oppression, and their repercussions, pile on and reach the peak in a rousing, powerful monologue by Binodini about “badi haveli ke bade raaz (the big secrets of the big mansion)” wherein women of the household might be showered with silk and jewellery, but told to stay silent about secrets. Dam packs in a punch as does Dimri in the lead. From the vulnerable and the innocent to the transformation into the mysterious tease, Dimri is a stunner who speaks volumes with her eyes. And the audience can do little but stay enraptured.
Dutt shows delicacy in dealing with the indecorous, a touch of the poignant and the poetic in highlighting the pain. The film is essentially about companionships that unknowingly blossom into more and then some friendships that crave to find a fruition that they can’t. Then there are jealousies that raise their heads, as they do between Satya (Avinash Tiwary) and Dr Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the confidante after my heart) due to unresolved emotions for Bulbbul.
The film is essentially be a re-imagination of the legend of chudail (witch) with the twisted feet as a devi with a cause and a mission but I was swept away by the overwhelming romance — unexpressed but implicit, fulsome in its tacitness. Like a simple conversation towards the end of the film, between Bulbbul and Sudip, over a shared bidi (cigarette). The oblique talk of hope, boundaries and the unreachable between them even as their eyes stay transfixed on the other. The gaze of love, or something like that. “Kahani poori kaise hogi,” weeps Bulbbul at one point in the film. No, some love stories don’t ever come a full circle to a conclusion. And that makes them all the more beautiful.
Bulbbul is currently streaming on Netflix