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Review of the Movie 'Bulbbul' - A Feminist Gaze

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Photograph : A still from the movie Bulbbul
Written by Rayaan Chawla

A masterfully-crafted, powerfully-feminist thriller, brought low by lacklustre characters, disappointing flirtations with CGI and a supremely disappointing attitude towards persons with intellectual disabilities. A period horror/murder-mystery with feminist overtones sounds like an ambitious project for a seasoned director. For a directorial debutant to even attempt it is admirable. Little fault can be found with the directorial intent of Anvita Dutt, and littler still with ornamental value of the products of her labour. Bulbbul, for the most part, is a gorgeous film. The sets used, primarily the courtyard and facade of the haveli with its striking (western) Classical portico, as well as the Wes Anderson-esque symmetry of the majority of frames (barring the ones featuring the more trite shaky-cam technique), make it an optical revelation. Unfortunately, this only means the film’s visual flaws — especially, in the final act, which could desperately have used some pyrotechnics, in place of shoddy CGI — are that much more jarring.

If one were to nitpick, one would be able to find a fair few mistakes in the making of this film. The production design doesn’t reflect the same meticulous attention to detail that the bulk of its cinematography does. Plastic buttons, doorknobs, pens and spectacles in the modern styles — all present anachronisms that one must choose to overlook in the 1881-set thriller. But the true letdowns that steal from Bulbbul’s undeniable promise are not these minutiae. The most directly visible fault is with its characters and the cast that is tasked with bringing them to life.

Tripti Dimri, playing the eponymous lead, fares well enough, balancing the inexperienced delicateness of the “badi bahu” with the self-assured, radiant fierceness of the supernatural. That said, she never truly gets to show off the acting chops she hints at possessing, for the film lacks in both duration and in the sufficient development of any multi-dimensionality for her persona. Rahul Bose handles (or, attempts to handle) a more distinct dichotomy of characters — the landed lord and his younger twin, who suffers from an intellectual disability — doing so with insufferably little tact and a decidedly “hammy” energy.

Avinash Tiwary’s portrayal is passable, with no discernable defects, but no memorable impact either. The character of Satya, however, smacks of an arrogant scientism, which, while consistent to some degree with his English education, appears too rigidly unflappable — until it very suddenly doesn’t, at the story’s climax. The doctor, as played by Parambrata Chattopadhyay, is just along for the ride, and is given shockingly little agency by the script, other than as the occasional fount of exposition.

But there exists a lily in this crowd of thorns. Paoli Dam shines as Binodini, the wife of the younger brother of the thakur. Few will sympathise with her defeatist ramblings or with the jealousy-fuelled machinations she employs to derail Bulbbul’s marriage to the husband she desired for herself. And yet, Ms Dam is able to bring vital energy to what would otherwise be a character grounded in familiar tropes, and to provide much needed substance and grounding to the film’s otherwise abstract handling of patriarchal norms.

Mention, of course, must be made here of the film’s feminist spirit. One must stop and applaud the consistency of Ms Dutt’s vision, in this regard. The film almost reeks of a genuine angst at the historical and prevailing condition of women placed in subordinate positions to men. Indeed, the “man in a position of power” is far more unnerving than any of the supernatural elements the film proffers. It must, however, be said that the film’s feminism is far more effective and hard-hitting in its subtler elements — for instance, the imagery of a “caged” Bulbbul looking outward from a barred window in the expectation of her beloved companion’s return — than in its more gaudy declarations of the purported chudail’s “devi-hood”.

The scene of the violent rape, however, must be analysed with more caution. It depicts the titular character being brutally stirred from her post-operative slumber by an assault inflicted upon her by her brother-in-law. Her feet, recovering from the battery of her husband a few nights prior, are seen to be put through immense trauma yet again, but the soulless act of sexual violence. The result of the shock is her immediate death and subsequent resurrection as a vengeful spirit. It is tempting to laud the audacity of the depiction, for it is more than horrific enough to induce feelings of disgust and nausea in any empathetic viewer. It is, further, possible to cite it as the underpinning of the film’s social commentary.

But, unfortunately, it only forces us to confront what is the film’s more insidious, more dangerous defect. As has been alluded to before, the brother-in-law that commits the act is afflicted with intellectual disabilities. No further justification is provided for his actions, save for the adoration he displays towards his victim since a tender age. This is an inappropriate handling of a sensitive set of conditions. Persons with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to be victims of crimes of neglect and violence (including sexual assault) than they are to be perpetrators.

Those cases in which they do inflict such violence on others are overwhelmingly those of such persons becoming offenders in the wake of their experiences as victims of similar crime. By failing to provide such justification for the actions of the assaulter, the film effectively perpetuates stigmatised views of a community of persons already marginalised in the public consciousness and grossly underrepresented in cinema.

I do not mean to suggest, of course, that this stigmatisation was at all intentional. It is merely disappointing that the film’s very commendable feminist mores should be undercut by a lack of inclusivity in its representation. Indeed, that perhaps reflects the very essence of any criticism one can offer to Bulbbul: it is, by all means and measures, a very well-meaning film; it is only in the deeper details of its message and content that it requires greater polish and more careful consideration.

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