By Rachit Raj

Bulbbul is a richly mounted, delicately written, and poignantly acted film with a memorable background score. But more than that, it is a film that continues the enriching tradition of redefining Indian horror (although this is too cross-genre to be called “horror” in the dictionary sense of the word) by finding elements of gore and glory rooted deeply in Indian folklore and fantasy.

Unlike Stree or Pari, though, Bulbbul takes place far from our current reality, speaking about ideas that are as pertinent today as they were back then. The film, written and directed by Anvita Dutt, gives India a homebred supernatural chudail (witch), who lurks at night with a twisted ankle which, like most things in this dense film, means more than just a visually discomforting appearance given to the chudail.

The story follows the life of Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) from being a child bride to an adult woman torn between her marriage with a man much older to her (Rahul Bose), her brother-in-law and most trusted companion (Avinash Tiwary), and her husband’s intellectually impaired twin brother. Her story, set against a gorgeous Bengali mansion, is staked against the growing myth of a chudail who feeds off men.

A little glance at Clean Slate Filmz’ filmography could make Bulbbul a largely predictable affair, but Dutt’s writing, Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography, and a constant, conspicuous parallel between the world of the film and that of our present keep the film engaging and a rewarding watch. The film is as much a feminist fable as it is a cautionary tale. It is a story of oppression turning into offense, and offense becoming a way for self-discovery.

At its core, Bulbbul is a journey of becoming one’s own protagonist. By placing the film in the early 20th century (the present-day of the film is 1901), and giving the film the name of its female protagonist, Bulbbul immediately takes us in a world where our protagonist is not the protagonist of her own story. Her story is guarded by men, and even when she tries to find herself in her story in the process of collaborating with the one man who matters to her, she is robbed of that by the person who is convinced that he is the only protagonist of the story. The only one who matters.

Everything in Bulbbul accords to the fact that Bulbbul is yet to realize herself as a protagonist. Naturally, then, it is the men who get the fancy entrance, the job of searching the alleged chudail at night, and taking all the major, life-changing decisions. Bulbbul is merely a beautiful set-piece, unaware of her own impending explosion. Everything around her – about her – is a silent, almost invisible affair. Dreams, love, heartbreak, and physical abuse. There is politicized silence around everything she does: A silence that does not turn into words, but actions.

In that sense, Bulbbul not only blurs the lines of good and evil (which Pari did magnificently), but it also speaks about the need for every ‘Bulbbul’ to take center-stage in their own narrative. It speaks of how silence in the face of indifference can become a violent, vehement force. It is a story about how women are rarely given the respect of life, and how their quiet, barely breathable life passes as normal in a world where physical abuse and rape is a rampant reality.

In a world of hashtags, Bulbbul is a strong, picturesque story of a woman’s rise into being her own saviour. It reiterates, that while hope of concrete change does lie in the hands of the historically privileged men, there are no men who are truly cleansed off the systematic, internalized misogyny that the entire society is drenched in.

In a beautiful scene, the chudail is described by a little girl as Kali Maa, the Devi of Death. It is in this scene that the essence of Bulbbul lies. Bulbbul is a delicate film of harsh realities; a beautifully captured story of horrifying, normalized acts that are, in the act of one rising as the protagonist of their own story, brought to bloodied justice served against the unforgettable image of a red, rebellious moon.

 (Now Streaming on Netflix)