BULBBUL– A petrifying visual spectacle/A breathtakingly sinister revenge
In 2020, we witnessed a dark, gripping and thought-provoking fantasy tale in the form of Netflix’s Bulbbul. Earlier this year, I came across a video by the YouTube channel “Long Live Cinema”, which prompted me to check out this film. This passionate and twisted feminist fable, disguised as a horror film left me in shambles. Set in the Bengal presidency during the 19th century, the story chronicles the life of Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), a 5-year-old child bride who is married off to a much older affluent lord called Indranil (Rahul Bose). Indranil lives in a majestic haveli with his seemingly autistic twin brother, Mahendra and his wife Binodini (Paoli Dam).
She arrives at the haveli with her husband, but is more interested in spending time with her friend Satya (Avinash Tiwary), a young boy of her age who happens to be Indranil’s little brother. He distracts her from her sadness of having to leave her house by telling her the story of a witch.
But the haveli is a dark place where only male desire must be pandered to.
As Bulbbul grows into Badi Bahu with a husband who treasures her, the other woman in the house looks on with a burning desire and malevolence. Bulbbul’s friendship with Chote Thakur blossoms, the two of them growing up creating stories together.
Hence Binodini, who lusts after Indranil, finds an opportunity and plants doubts of a scandal in his mind.
Skeptical, he sends Satya to the UK for higher studies leaving Bulbbul all alone in a place where no one cares for her. Unable to suppress her grief, Bulbbul unknowingly confirms her Lord’s suspicion. Infuriated with rage, in an ironically aesthetic scene, we see Indranil “clip” Bulbbul’s wings and leave her in an immobilized state.
Years later, when Satya returns to the Manor, he finds his Bulbbul no longer an innocent girl but a mystifying and powerful lady who rules the household, as her village is plagued with supernatural murders of men. The film follows a non-linear pattern, consistently transitioning between the past and the present day, post the return of Satya.
Director Anvita Dutt gives a beautiful ode to Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Nastanirh (and the Satyajit Ray film Charulata), as the romance that blossoms between Bulbbul and her brother-in-law, Satya, carries an uncanny resemblance to the relationship between Tagore and his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi.
The film takes you on a journey of the visual spectacle of the bygone Bengali era, while simultaneously leaving you insensate with its storytelling which exposes the harsh realities of “big mansions have big secrets”. It slowly and carefully unravels relevant social issues that bring the dark truth of the patriarchal society to the forefront — where child marriage, rape, domestic abuse, widowhood, victim-blaming and child abuse prevails.
This film deserves to be lauded for its writing and the immaculate performances by the star cast.
In order for a film to leave a lasting impact, it is crucial to empower the script through visuals to portray the true essence of the story and the emotions of the characters. This is done through a blend of structured visuals, background score, colour, light and shadow. Bulbbul is a testament to this!
The entire film revolves around two primary colour palletes — turquoise and the deeper shades of red. These colours perfectly encapsulate the aura of our protagonist during her life.
BEGINNING AND TEAL
The movie starts with Bulbbul’s wedding: where the house, the clothes of people, the windows are all in a shade of blue or turquoise. This colour embraces the happiness of the environment. However, Bulbbul appears on her wedding in a dark red saree amidst the blue background which immediately sets her apart from her surroundings. This indicates that she is not going to blend away.
PRELUDE AND THE INTRODUCTION OF RED
Throughout the past portions, we see the background remain a stable turquoise, a symbol of Bulbbul’s carefreeness and her budding romance with Satya. That is until we arrive at the scene where Indranil announces his plan of sending his brother away. This is the first time that the colour red finds its presence in the movie, hinting at both Indranil’s jealousy and the ominous path Bulbbul is walking.
DOOMSDAY AND THE TRANSITION
(TW: mentions of blood and abuse)
Now, we reach the most important part of the film. Indranil, brimming with rage and anger over his wife’s apparent disobedience, goes to punish her. He mercilessly severes her leg by repeatedly hitting it with a metal rod. This scene is one of the most aesthetic combinations of breathtaking visuals, pristine editing, perfect score and symbolism.
We see Bulbbul’s blood spilling on a painting above. Interestingly, the painting was of a classic scene from the epic Ramayana, where Jatayu (a demigod in the form of a vulture) in an attempt to save Sita from Ravan gets his wings cut off by Ravan and succumbs. Additionally, on the day of her wedding, we witness a conversation between Bulbbul and her aunt, where she curiously asks the reason for wearing a ring on her toe. To which the aunt replies “Girls have a nerve on their toe which must be kept in control, or else girls tend to fly away, like a bird”
A lifeless Bulbbul, struggling to not feel pain, gets treated for her injuries. But alas, her relief is short-lived as Mahendra forces himself onto a half-paralysed Bulbbul to satisfy his lust. The naïve girl, with a simple dream corrupted by the perils and wrath of patriarchy, leaves the world in agony. But does she? The sky outside hosts a new blood moon, the clouds fill up with rage, it’s the age of rebellion and a witch is born.
The colour palette turns red.
The present-day hosts a contrastingly different Bulbbul. She is a matriarch, a savage and seems unafraid. She listens to the villagers’ problems and advises them. This is when we witness the return of Satya, much to the delight of Bulbbul. However, their village is being haunted by a supposed witch who ruthlessly murders men. Satya, being the non-conformist, detests the idea of the supernatural and launches his own investigation. For several years, Bulbbul had been presiding over her manor with no help or support from Satya. Even after going through insurmountable pain and agony, Bulbbul still loves her Satya but is uncomfortable with his sudden interference in the decision making, and subsequent undermining of her authority.
Satya grows jealous of her closeness with Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chatterjee), who had been treating Bulbbul and harbours feelings for her. A typical dhoti wearing, well educated and articulate professional, Dr. Sudip encompasses the modern intellectual revolutionary, much like the real-life Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who is not only compassionate but also empathetic of her pain. He connects with Bulbbul on an unparalleled intellectual wavelength.
Wary of his intentions, Satya disrelishes Dr. Sudip and even suspects him of being the real murderer. Satya tried to make his presence clear as the “man of the house” and wrote a letter to Indranil notifying him of Bulbbul’s unruly action after he assumed she had an affair with Dr. Sudip. This final act of betrayal pains her as she laughs and states “all you men are the same.”
Bulbbul’s confidante, her best friend, the man for whom she endured hell for and the man whom she loved more than anything, didn’t even bother to let her explain her actions, chose to punish her and enforce his ideas on her.
The climax of the movie, set in the indulgent red forest, follows Satya hunting the witch.
As the forest erupts in flames engulfing Bulbbul, both the men dawn on the realization that the “witch” they were out to hunt was actually a Goddess, a messiah, saving the women and the girls from the perils of predators, punishing the monsters for their sins, and delivering true justice by killing the savages.
Dr. Sudip, having realized her real identity, dives to the depths of the forest, risks his life in the attempt to save her. Unfortunately, Satya is unable to reach this realization on time and lets out a scream of anguish knowing he has lost his Bulbbul forever, due to his own ignorance and inherent misogyny.
Satya flees the mansion, numbed by the realization that he and his entire family were responsible for Bulbbul’s destruction.
Here, the red doesn’t only signify the rage and rebellion. In Bengali culture, red is considered extremely auspicious. It is the aura of a woman’s strength, courage, and ability to break barriers as seen in the iconic saree, bangles and sindoor. Most importantly it signifies worshipping Goddess Kali, the embodiment of Shakti (power), the Goddess of destruction and doomsday and protector against all evil.
Bulbbul draws horrifying parallels to the treatment of women and the patriarchy that is prevalent till this day. The patriarchy is so deep-rooted that Binodini, who is herself a woman, doesn’t think twice before wrecking the life of another and telling her to “hush down because these things always happen”.
There is an underlying comparison between the supernatural and women. Witches, like women, are celebrated and worshipped when they conform yet vilified, dehumanized and hunted for seeking truth, for desiring and for exercising the freedom of choice.
It also beautifully depicts the three types of men found universally.
THE DETERMINED PATRIARCH
Both Indranil and Mahendra think of themselves as superior to the woman in their lives. They believe they can exercise infinite control over them, and have a right over their minds and bodies.
Although not inherently bad, Satya is unaware of the harsh realities of his surroundings. He lacks knowledge of the weight of his privilege and doesn’t think of patriarchy as an issue. Being raised in such surroundings, he is conditioned to enforce the traditional system of order and does so without introspection. As they say, an ignorant man is much more dangerous.
Dr Sudip is the thinker, the observer. He is aware of his entitlement and wishes to use it for societal good. He respects and treats women with the utmost respect and is fearless in his ways. Undaunted by change, he openly advocates for equality and justice.
Bulbbul effectively manages to tell a fabled tale of a woman and how pain, brutality, injustice, years of torment and a twisted society preferring everything masculine, leads to her unleashing her wrath, scorning everything and everyone that comes in her path to justice.
Cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and Production Designer Meena Agarwal have done a brilliant job of treating this gripping thriller with a fantasy-like approach, and for that, they deserve all the praise.
This horror story didn’t require jump scares or twisted camera angles. The reality was horrifying enough.
– Anandi Ganguly, Amity International School, Noida