Bulbul Can Sing Reminds Us of the Price Girls Pay to Experience Adolescence

Bollywood

Bulbul Can Sing Reminds Us of the Price Girls Pay to Experience Adolescence

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

If Village Rockstars proved that Rima Das could translate the aimlessness of female adolescence in a way that justified its existence, then Bulbul Can Sing, Das’s follow up deftly captures the price that girls pay to experience adolescence. In more ways than one, the National Award-winning Assamese film feels like a spiritual successor to Village Rockstars. Both films juxtapose Das’s eye for ethnographic detail of countryside Assam with striking coming-of-age tales. They mine music as both an aspiration and a language, imagine women as caregivers and breadwinners, and are punctuated by a piercing gaze that confronts defined gender roles. 

Yet, perhaps the biggest clue to reading Bulbul Can Sing as a natural progression from Village Rockstars is the film’s protagonist. In Village Rockstars, Dhunu was 10 years old, at a precarious age where she could afford to prioritise her internal conflict over the pressures of external interference. Here, Bulbul (her name translates to “nightingale,” a bird famed for their melodious voice) is a 15-year-old at the cusp of womanhood. It’s an age where the world begins to dictate the validity of a young girl’s desires. So if in Village Rockstars, Das’s camera gently hinged on preserving Dhunu’s innocence, in Bulbul Can Sing, she toughens her gaze: It is fixated on letting Bulbul learn how to survive the loss of innocence. It sits metaphorically and literally as the next chapter of a young girl’s life. In doing so, Das manages to spotlight a rare rite of passage that defines female coming-of-age: societal humiliation.

Bulbul Can Sing

The film’s opening shot has Bulbul playing with flowers and there’s a scene midway through the film, where Bulbul and Suman lie in bed next to each other, that wordlessly confirms his sexual orientation.

Flying River Films

Paced at a tight 97 minutes, the first half of Bulbul Can Sing lingers at an unhurried pace that resembles the idleness of summer afternoons. The film’s protagonists are Bulbul (the electric Arnali Das), Bonnie (Banita Thakuriya), and Suman (Manoranjan Das), three best friends who are guileless. They’re inseparable, counting out days in climbing trees, putting finishing touches to makeshift swings, and bathing in the river. Das, an evocative storyteller, chronicles their friendship with her trademark gentleness. These portions, where Das uses the camera as a witness, are an observational delight: The film’s opening shot has Bulbul playing with flowers and there’s a scene midway through the film, where Bulbul and Suman lie in bed next to each other, that wordlessly confirms his sexual orientation.

When they are with each other, it’s as if Bulbul, Bonnie, and Suman have no worries to accommodate; they just magically will their troubles away despite their limited means (they all come from impoverished families). But, the trajectories their lives take are quite the opposite. All of them are bound together by the battles they have to fight: Bulbul’s father, a forgotten folk singer, transfers his aspirations on his daughter. He keeps prepping her vocal chords regularly so that she might be chosen for the school’s choir. But Bulbul displays a polite disinterest in that hand-me-down dream, especially crippled by the thought of singing in front of an audience. At school, when her music teacher asks her to sing, she becomes self-conscious and goes off-key. 

Bonnie, in comparison is a better singer, but she is an even better friend. So she pretends to be unaware of her talent. When the film begins, Bonnie is the only one among them, who has a boyfriend. The trouble is he doesn’t seem to share the same level of commitment toward her. Suman, on the other hand, is mercilessly bullied in school by his classmates who call him “Ladies” to mock his effeminate personality (The scene where he breaks down and asks, “How is it my fault? God made me this way” is heartbreaking). In many ways, they are each other’s protectors. For instance, Bulbul remains submissive to the demands of her father at home, but she transforms into a dissenter the moment she is outside: She stands up to the guys who bully Suman with the ferociousness of a fighter. 

Bulbul Can Sing posits that patriarchy doesn’t afford the same luxury to young girls whose carefree adolescence is thwarted by the expectations that society puts on them.

The monotony of their lives ends when the three friends embark on a journey of discovering their sexuality: When Bulbul reciprocates the advances of an admirer in school, Bonnie and her boyfriend are readily fused into their group. As Bulbul follows Bonnie and Suman in acknowledging her desires, the film’s narrative ambiguity suddenly takes a sombre turn. Das uses stray moments to foreshadow the impending gloom – an instance of moral policing so frightening, triggering, and inevitable, that it frames humiliation of young girls as a societal weapon. Bulbul and Bonnie suffer the consequences of daring to march to their own beat at the hands of their school, their parents, the society, and ultimately life. Finally, it’s a shattering tragedy that engineers Bulbul’s coming-of-age and an act of trauma that strips Bonnie of the right to that very same thing.

It’s this facet of coming-of-age that films often skip, which Das insists on underlining. When boys come of age, they get the freedom that permits them to make mistakes. Bulbul Can Sing posits that patriarchy doesn’t afford the same luxury to young girls whose carefree adolescence is thwarted by the expectations that society puts on them. It argues that the origins of female coming-of-age is always trauma. As Bulbul learns, to adult means to accept societal humiliation; to realise that the world demands her to lose a part of herself to become a woman. It is nothing but a mere disguise for submission. And Bulbul Can Sing reclaims female coming-of-age by interpreting it as a mourning and not a celebration.

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