Bulbbul Review: There’s Lots to Admire in this Spooky Anti-Fairytale Produced by Anushka Sharma

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Bulbbul Review: There’s Lots to Admire in this Spooky Anti-Fairytale Produced by Anushka Sharma

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul has a prince and a princess. At first pass, that might hint at a fairytale. Just like in the stories, both of them share an intense connection. Except there is no happily-ever-after in sight here. The prince never shows up to rescue the princess, much less reciprocate her feelings. Instead, the princess suffers, first quietly and then loudly, at the hands of men who deem her their possession and imprison her even while pretending to allow her a chance at freedom. Essentially, Bulbbul becomes a cautionary tale about fairy tales, a richly layered fable that blurs the lines between subjugation and emancipation, demon and goddess, coming-of-age and the loss of innocence.

Set in 19th century Bengal, Bulbbul, possibly the most ambitious Netflix original film since Lust Stories, opens with a child marriage. A girl, not more than eight years old, is married off to a man two decades older. The man is Indranil, the eldest brother of an aristocratic zamindar family that includes his mentally challenged twin brother Mahendra (Rahul Bose, stellar in his double role), his sister-in-law Binodini (Paoli Dam), and teen cousin Satya (Avinash Tiwary). The girl is Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), who mistakenly believes that Satya, closest to her age and an equal of sorts, is the man she has married – a clever foreshadowing of both an unfulfilled love story and the life of oppression that awaits her.

Bulbbul then takes a 20-year leap. Satya who decamped to London five years prior, returns to his ancestral village to worrying news. Their village is haunted by a blood-thirsty she-demon murdering men in the dead of the night. Incidentally, Satya used to narrate the same story to Bulbbul when they were kids.

His family has also fallen apart: The widowed Binodini, clad in white sarees, forced to shave her head and give up worldly belongings is convinced that the demon claimed Mahendra as one of her victims. On the other hand, Indranil has disappeared from the family home under mysterious circumstances leaving Bulbbul to preside over their mansion. And Bulbbul’s affections are now reserved for Sudip (Parambrata Chatterjee), a doctor who seems besotted by her and her feet, whom Satya immediately suspects to be behind the murders.

Bulbbul manages to make for a hypnotic experience is a quiet triumph, a testament to Dutt’s distinct storytelling and efficient casting.

In a way, Bulbbul is the only person whose place in the family has remained unchanged. And yet Satya, who was once inseparable from her, has trouble recognising the person she has become. “What did you do with her?,” he asks her at one point. “I gobbled her up,” Bulbbul replies, alluding to the legend of the she-demon who feeds on young princesses. It’s a harmless statement but one that becomes loaded with meaning as Bulbbul progresses.

From that moment, alternating between flashbacks and the present, the film goes about piecing together the events of the last five years. It leads up to a violent tragedy that drastically altered the course of Bulbbul’s life.

Rabindranath Tagore is an absent presence in the film. Its central premise of a married Bengali woman finding companionship in her brother-in-law feels heavily borrowed from Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi. The bond was immortalised in his novella Nashtanirh, adapted by Satyajit Ray as Charulata. A large chunk of Bulbbul is shot at Bawali Rajbari, a 350-year-old mansion where Rituparno Ghosh shot Tagore’s Chokher Bali, centred around a young widow named Binodini.

Bulbbul is set around time the city was witnessing the Bengal Renaissance, a socio-cultural artistic movement that rejected archaic traditions and espoused progressive values that emphasised equality. That a village on the outskirts of the city continued to propagate the very things the movement was against – child marriage, societal exile of widows, men taking on second wives – is cause for terror.

Making her directorial debut with Bulbbul, Dutt, a seasoned lyricist and screenwriter, takes her time with building suspense, relying more on visual detailing than narrative plot-twists. Even when the film plays by straightforward beats, the originality in her voice shows. The film is vividly rendered in royal tones and the interplay of shadow and light add to the atmospheric dread of the proceedings.

Bulbbul’s supernatural elements are a product of the socio-cultural inequalities of its setting.

Supplemented by the meticulous production design that recreates Bengal while retaining a fantastical quality, Bulbbul’s exquisite framing transports one into the thick of action. The terrific camerawork too moves in tandem to unsettle viewers, interspersing unhurried takes and wide, slow-motion sequences with sped-up proceedings.

Bulbbul is produced by Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz. This isn’t their first horror outing: Like Pari, the film’s supernatural elements are a product of the socio-cultural inequalities of its setting. It is a searing indictment of a society that reduces women to disposable goods at the mercy of men and tradition. (One character refers to Bulbbul as a “doll” and another proceeds to dress her up as one). Dutt’s economical script adeptly blends together Bengali folklore (a darker variant of Thakurmar Jhuli), Hindu mythology (Durga’s transformation into Kali), and systemic gender violence to identify a vicious strain of male insecurity.

At under 90 minutes, Bulbbul doesn’t labour its point but does fall into the trap of crowding its final minutes with revelations that could have done with a bit more time. That Bulbbul still manages to make for a hypnotic experience is a quiet triumph, a testament to Dutt’s distinct storytelling and efficient casting.

Dimri is immensely watchable as Bulbbul, effortlessly bringing a sincerity to her innocence that makes the loss of it even more riveting. Tiwary provides able foil and both the actors play off each other’s energies in rewarding ways. Even then, for a supernatural thriller that involves murders and demons, the most haunting part about Bulbbul ends up being Amit Trivedi’s tender background score that distills the greatest horror of all: the tragedy of longing.