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Bulbbul - bye bye birdie

Bulbbul, based in Bengal, beckons at its beginning, like the sweet song of its titular songbird, full of innocence, but then beguilingly moves into darker territory infused with blood. Just released on Netflix, and produced by the sister-brother duo of Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma (no, it's not a typo, he does spell his last name with two S's) and their banner of Clean Slate Films, the same folks who last month brought the terrific Amazon Prime series Paatal Lok (reviewed here), Bulbbul is a feminist empowerment tale masquerading as supernatural drama.

Starting in 1881 in the Bengal Presidency with the wedding of innocent, wide-eyed child bride Bulbbul to a much older man Indranil (Rahul Bose), who has a twin brother Mahendra (also played by Bose), and then quickly cutting to twenty years later showing her to be a self-assured, strong-willed woman, Bulbbul starts like the prototypical Bengali badi haveli story. The clothes, the candlelit ambiance, the decor all are khoob bhalo. But there is something afoot. The passage of twenty years, and especially the last five, when Indranil's younger brother Satya (Avinash Tiwary), who was Bulbbul's (Tripti Dimry) close friend and confidante, was away in London studying law, has brought with it several changes. These are gradually revealed thru a series of flashbacks coupled with a string of mysterious deaths attributed to that staple of Indian folklore, the chudail with her stereotypical ISO 9001 certified ultey pair.

Writer and lyricist Anvita Dutt, who wrote the dialogues for another female empowerment movie, Queen (2014), makes her directorial debut here and has written the story and screenplay as well. Coming in at a brief 1 hr 34 mins, she creates the supernatural foggy atmospherics on a palette of red shades, but doesn't overdo the standard tropes like jump scares or screeching, wailing music (Amit Trivedi's score can be described as subdued scary). Bulbbul, the younger badi bahu and her complex dynamic with the older chhoti bahu Binodini (Paoli Dam) is well played out by both actresses, laying out overtly and covertly, the tussle for survival and search for supremacy by women in a man's world. Binodini's driving force and raison d'etre is laid out superbly in a short sequence with a repetitive line reminiscent of Mark Antony saying "for Brutus is an honorable man" in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Avinash Tiwary as the aptly named Satya is the stand-in for us the audience trying to decipher the goings-on, piecing together the forensics. Rahul Bose as the calm but menacing Indranil and the dim-witted but creepy Mahendra brings out his inner privileged Bangla bandhu to the fore. But it is Tripti Dimry's portrayal of Bulbbul, whose metamorphosis from shy ingenue to assured thakurain with a hint of quiet malice and sense of foreboding, is what gives the movie it's narrative thrust.

The climactic denouement and exposition is fairly straightforward though, so don't expect any Sixth Sense Shyamalanesque type twists, but it is in keeping with the overall ethos of men not trusting women to be a person in their own right. In the beginning, when getting married, the young Bulbbul asks an older woman the significance of the toe ring and is told that it is to prevent her from flying away. To the child's mind it is a literal shackle, but the real meaning is the mental incarceration, where when she tells her husband she is doing something personal, is asked what else possibly could be personal for a woman other than her husband. That's what Bulbbul finally flies away from.

June 26, 2020

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