What’s it take for women to make their voices, pain, and protestations heard amidst constant undermining and violence that scythes across emotional and physical layers? Why is it that most folklore and campfire catechisms tell of horrors that female forms take, usually to slake their bloodthirsty urges?
There’s a lesson in it and a deeply ironic one at that. If Stree took a madcap route to get to the answer, writer-director Anvita Dutt travels back to the Bengal Presidency in 1881, where a 5-year old Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), traipsing along the branches of trees and galloping around the foliage, just as innocently skips and hops into her wedding ceremony, thinking it’s closer-to-her-age Satya (Varun Buddhadev) that she’ll see during shubho drishti. Who she gets is Satya’s generations older brother Indranil (Rahul Bose) whose mentally challenged twin (Rahul Bose again) is married to Binodini (Paoli Dam).
Years fly past, and an adult Satya (Avinash Tiwary) is abruptly sent to London for higher studies, breaking Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), her heart, stories, and romantic anchor tied to him. Five years later, Satya returns to the family mansion, Bulbbul, and a habitué, Dr. Sudip (a likable, understated Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who’s now the official mascot for Mr. Likeable). But Satya’s visit is preceded by murder and abnegation in the family, and pretty soon, he’s hearing rumors about other murders that are being carried out by a Shakchunni (witch), whose feet, in line with late night tales of gruesome and lurid joy, are pointed the other way. Satya, of course, makes it his point to get to the truth, and there’s irony there as well — Satya means truth, but can he face what his name stands for? — even as his obsession with Bulbbul begins to consume him, a vitiating mix of jealousy and morbid fascination.
Bulbbul, produced by the now redoubtable-in-her-producer’s-role Anushka Sharma, doesn’t care for twists in its tail, and its story arc in the dark red sky flares its forward path pretty much early on if you care to think a little ahead. But that isn’t its point. If director Dutt and cinematographer Siddhart Diwan use stunning visuals and hypnotic filters that are part gothic, part fairy tale, and all fiery, it’s to wrap the story that thwacks you mercilessly with gender violence and suppressive patriarchy. Plus, the mansion’s-female-intrigue that thrummed subtly, yet violently in Rabindranath Tagore’s stories — who had his own take on greed and ghosts in his Manihara (The Lost Jewels) — runs in the movie’s veins too, and it is this subterfuge that sets off the horrifying course of jealousy and ownership, spiraling towards death and destruction.
Rahul Bose, in both his roles, is superbly dark and darker. If one role has him couch his patriarchal poison in upper-class power, the other sees him bare feral claws — a man can be mentally challenged, but his primal hunger is pin-point accurate. Paoli Dam as the prime instigator of events and herself a victim of the mansion’s secrets, is very good, as is Avinash Tiwary as the cursed bearer of cursed genes and gender bearer. But it is Tripti Dimri who brings alive the tension and symphonic horror that composer Amit Trivedi lays over the inverted-feet track. The actor gets in a deadpan look in her turn as the mistress of the mansion. It’s only later that you realize that hers is not a sanitized turn. Her eyes look dead because her character’s faced unbearable and unthinkable pain. And beneath that mysterious smile is the truth. The only way women can get back at the crippling power of gender suppression and violence is to become part of folklore. It’s an act that fills up the ironical corridors of justice, burns up the screen, and is inescapable in its tragedy.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Bulbbul is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (Restricted to adults). There’s violence and moderate creeps.
Director Anvita Dutt Time 1h 34min
Writer Anvita Dutt
Stars Tripti Dimri, Rahul Bose, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam
Genres Drama, Horror, Mystery