Bulbbul opens in Bengal in 1881, at the wedding of a little girl to a grown man, almost half a century before the first law banning child marriage came into effect. On the way to her new husband’s home, Bulbbul is told a story by her brother-in-law, Satya, a boy around her age. It’s a standard scary folk tale, about a chudail, a female demon, said to live in those parts, who has backwards-facing feet and a thirst for blood. In the next scene, Bulbbul, decked up, sitting on the bed, is visited by not one but two demons: her husband, Indranil, and his intellectually disabled younger brother, Mahendra.
The film jumps 20 years, and resumes in a Dracula frame of mind. Satya (Avinash Tiwary), just returned from his studies abroad, is being driven through a forest in a horse-drawn carriage. Its driver warns of the chudail. Strange noises emanate from the dark. The screen is a feverish purple. Satya is even dressed like Jonathan Harker, in a waistcoat and long jacket. At the mansion, he lights a lone candle and looks around. I half expected Max Schreck or Bela Lugosi to emerge from the shadows.
Satya is reunited with Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), who was in love with him before he left. She's now the lady of the mansion; Indranil (Rahul Bose) no longer lives with them, and Mahendra (also Bose) is dead, the victim of a mysterious, violent attack. His widow, Binodini (Paoli Dam), has to shave her head and live apart from the rest of the household. Bulbbul has an unsettling fixed smile, one that seems almost cruel when used in the presence of the unhappy Binodini. But as flashbacks start to interrupt the narrative, we learn more about the family and begin to sympathise with Bulbbul.
This is Anvita Dutt’s first film as director; her earlier work has been as a lyricist and writer on films like Queen, Phillauri and Shaandaar. Working with production designer Meenal Agarwal and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, she directs some impressively hallucinatory sequences. As a screenwriter, though, I wish she’d been bolder. When bad men start dying around Bulbbul, it’s fairly clear where the story is heading. This was fine in Stree, where the lack of suspense was compensated for by manic energy, but not in a film that doesn't quite work as relationship drama or as horror movie. There’s a mysterious character, a doctor named Sudip played by Parambrata Chatterjee, whose unspoken bond with Bulbbul kept me guessing. The rest are predictable, and talented performers like Tiwary and Dam have to work hard to enliven thinly drawn characters.
Dutt does have a keen eye for the small and large aggressions against women. When he first lays eyes on her, Satya says of Bulbbul: “She’s unkempt. But she’ll do." Years later, in love with her but jealous of her ease with the doctor, he snaps that she isn’t in purdah when meeting outsiders. Till then, Satya is the film’s hero; his saying this is a way of showing how the instincts of patriarchy are lurking under the surface of even untowardly nice men.
Bulbbul is best thought of in conjunction with two other films by its producer Anushka Sharma. In Pari, Sharma is a victim of a satanic cult with otherworldly powers; in Phillauri, she’s a ghost in limbo. Taken together, these three films are a loose trilogy of supernatural feminine power, each concerned, in its own way, with the injustices women have faced, and continue to face. Phillauri moves towards reconciliation, Bulbbul towards revenge, and Pari – a disturbing and original horror movie – finds unexpected grace in a gesture of sisterly solidarity.
Like Paatal Lok, another Sharma production, Bulbbul’s plot also turns on the depiction of violent crimes against women (the scene that draws out and aestheticizes spousal abuse left me feeling very uneasy). This puts us on Bulbbul’s side, though it would have been more impressive had our sympathies been won through the bravery or ingenuity of the character. Dimri’s implacable smile doesn’t allow Bulbbul much personality – it’s only in the flashbacks that she shows a broader range of emotions. Towards the end of the film, Satya calls the mysterious killer a rakshasa, to which Sudip responds “Devi hai." The suggestion that a woman must either be demon or goddess to be able to get her way is a provocative one, though beyond the scope of this film.
Bulbbul is streaming on Netflix.