Friday, July 17, 2020

Bulbbul—Flying With Twisted Feet

The first thing that catches one's eye about Bulbbul is its unconventional spelling with two contiguous Bs. This has something to do with numerology given that the co-producer Karnesh Ssharma's last name is also spelled in a similar fashion. Even the successful web series Paatal Lok, created by the same production banner, had a curious spelling. Before Bulbbul, writer-director Anvita Dutt has also written the screenplay of Anshai Lal's Phillauri for the same production house. Phillauri was the story of a poet Shashi (Anushka Sharma) in the early 1900s who turns into a ghost and comes back to life. The film had feminist and progressive elements in its narrative. Shashi feels no hesitation in having premarital sex in a conservative time and in an equally conservative place, while the contemporary youth in the film were hesitant to even talk about sex. Like in Phillauri, there is a supernatural angle in Bulbbul as well but it is closer to Prosit Roy's Pari (again produced by the same banner with dialogue written by Dutt). Pari was a layered story of the horrors women go through in their everyday lives. Every month, the witch Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) used to take out poison by biting a dog (or a human), a metaphor for menstruation. In Bulbbul, there is also a witch, or as she is called, a chudail who eats up the men who harm women in the village. Pari's tagline was Not A Fairy Tale. The same can be said about Bulbbul. It is designed like a fairy tale but it is about the horrors women had to go through in the nineteenth century. Bulbbul is another addition to the list of films, such as PhobiaPari, and Game Over that have used the genre of horror to depict themes related to feminism.
Bulbbul begins in the Bengal of 1881. A child bride Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan) is married off to an aristocrat Indranil (Rahul Bose) who is at least three times her age. Bulbbul develops a friendship with Indranil's younger brother Satya (Varun Paras Buddhadev) who is closer to her age than her husband. Indranil also has a mentally challenged twin brother Mahendra (Rahul Bose) who is married to Binodini (Pauli Dam). Twenty years pass by and things change in the household. Indranil moves out to the city and a grown-up Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) becomes the caretaker of the palatial mansion. Binodini is widowed after Mahendra is killed by the mysterious witch. Satya (Avinash Tiwary), who had been sent to London, returns and investigates the events in the village which seems to be reeling under the spell of the man-eating witch.
Like its namesake belonging to the avian kingdom, Bulbbul aimed to sing and fly but was trapped into the cages of patriarchy. Early in the film, like a bird, Bulbbul is sitting on a branch of a tree with her feet dangling in the air. "Pakad liya," says her Pishi Maa (Veera Kapur Ee) and catches her by her feet and takes her back to her wedding. Her feet are her wings and become the predominant motif in the film representing her desires. Pishi Maa dresses up Bulbbul and puts toe rings on her feet. On being questioned by Bulbbul about their need, Pishi Maa replies that there is a nerve in the feet, which if not pressed, makes the girls fly away. "Chidiya ke jaise," wonders Bulbbul. "Nahi, vash me karne liye hote hain bichhuen," replies the hesitant Pishi with her lowered eyes. They are meant to control women. Marriage to a man almost thrice her age becomes a means to restrict Bulbbul from flying. Bulbbul grows up and finds a friend in her younger brother-in-law Satya. This friendship gradually blossoms into love. But Bulbbul needs to be made aware of her boundaries. Thus, when Binodini observes Bulbbul's infatuation for Satya, she cautions her to buy new toe rings because the ones she is wearing have loosened up. She is warning Bulbbul that she is going out of control because vash me karne liye hote hain bichhue.
Aided and prodded by Binodini's salacious words, Indranil becomes suspicious of the relationship between Bulbbul and Satya and decides to send his brother away. In the scene where Indranil brings this up with Satya, he again chides Bulbbul for not keeping her feet covered—her desires hidden. Satya then leaves for London leaving Bulbbul with a broken heart. She longingly gazes out from the window, which seems to look like the bars of an iron cage. She feels trapped in this prison. Indranil, however, is still not satisfied and aims to further clip her wings. His suspicion of Bulbbul manifests in his horrific attack of her wings—her feet. The film uses Raja Ravi Varma's Jatayu Vadham to depict this harrowing act. In the painting, Raavan, who has abducted Sita, cuts one of the wings of Jatayu. Mirroring the act in the painting, Indranil cuts the wings of Bulbbul by hitting her feet. He is attacking the means of her mobility and freedom leaving her bedridden with her legs bandaged and fractured. His twin brother Mahendra, who was always troubling Bulbbul, also takes advantage of her condition and sexually assaults her in a state when she cannot move at all. She is left almost dead with her feet impaired and washed in her blood.
Then comes Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), a compassionate doctor, who helps in the healing of her feet. Like his name, he is the enlightened one. He is not a savior per se but tries to help Bulbbul get her wings back. He keeps checking on her recovery and becomes a friend and a confidante. This aspect is also reminiscent of Pari where it was again Parambrata Chattopadhyay as Arnab who helps Rukhsana in the healing of her feet. In that film, Arnab sees the bloodied feet of Rukhsana who turns up at his house in Kolkata walking all the way from her village, and offers to apply Boroline on them. Rukhsana is intimidated by any touch and puts her feet away from him. Seeing her hesitation, Arnab gives the tube to her and tells her to put it on her own. Later, this scene is repeated when Rukhsana cannot find a nail cutter, and she uses the knife to cut her nails, bruising her feet in the process. Arnab, again, observes her feet and gives her Boroline to apply it on her feet. This time, she puts her feet away initially, then brings them forward, and signals to him that he can apply the ointment on her. These little touches demonstrate the dynamics of consent and depict that Arnab is well aware of the boundaries of women. Likewise, Sudip is quite self-aware and knows his limits. At one point, he says to Bulbbul, "Pahunch ke bahut bahar ho. Isiliye lakeerein kheechta rehta hun." You are out of my league. I keep drawing boundaries to keep myself away from you.
Thereafter, Satya returns to Bulbbul's life. A shot of Bulbbul's covered feet is the one that welcomes him. After a few days, Satya is taken aback by the proximity between Bulbbul and Sudip. "Parda bhi nahi kiya aapne," he remarks disapprovingly. You have not even worn a veil. He tries to take over the household work from Bulbbul showing that he wears the pants in the house. He wants to put her back in the cage. Bulbbul, meanwhile, seems to have moved on. From the bride with the alta-lined feet, she has become the chudail with ulte pair (twisted feet). Unaware of the reality, Satya chases the chudail leading to her death. The men tried to cage her but Bulbbul found freedom. When Indranil returns in the end, he looks towards the sky, sensing that Bulbbul is flying somewhere above him.
Bulbbul is powered by its two leading women. There is the charming Tripti Dimri who portrays the innocence and the swagger of Bulbbul beautifully. There is a lovely scene when she and Sudip share a smoke and she talks to him through her smile. Her eyes convey the sadness of heartache. There is also the marvelous Pauli Dam as Binodini who initially comes across as shrewd and meddling but gradually one feels sympathy for her as she, too, had gone through a lot of suffering in her life. One of the finest scenes in the film is when she dresses up Bulbbul after she is assaulted and narrates her story revealing the carrots she was given when she was asked to marry Mahendra. "Badi haveliyon me bade raaz hote hain," she concludes and asks Bulbbul to remain silent.
Bulbbul is meticulously designed by Meenal Agarwal and gloriously shot by Siddharth Dhawan. There is a lot to see in the film. At one point, Bulbbul's house-help steams her hair with a brass statue of a bulbul. The film also adopts a strong color palette. Red is the dominant color. When the chudail comes, the moon turns pink—the color of feminism—and the nights turn red—the color of blood and revenge. Perhaps it was intended, but these red scenes felt intensely claustrophobic and overbearing at times. The transition of Bulbbul's personality is also reflected in the color of her sarees. A timid Bulbbul is always seen in lighter hues while a confident Bulbbul is dressed in darker colors. In her new phase, she also wears gray, or as Binodini calls it saleti, adding to her mystery. Like other motifs, there is the also use of fire at different places in the film. Bulbbul burns the pages of her unfinished story in the fire; in the end, Satya burns the entire forest finishing that story. The same crackling of fire emanates the misery in the two scenes.
Influences from the works of the illustrious Raja Ravi Varma work can also be seen in Bulbbul. A woman with a sitar singing the thumri Ude Re resembles the painting Kadambari. At another stage, Bulbbul sitting with a fan made of peacock feathers is reminiscent of the painting Damyanti (which is also seen in the walls of the house). As previously mentioned, the painting Jatayu Vadham is shown when Indranil assaults Bulbbul. The implication was that Indranil was the Raavan. There is another aspect related to Raavan that can be read in the film. Like Raavan had ten faces, the twin brothers are like the two faces of Raavan. Both Indranil and Mahendra violently attack Bulbbul—Sita. They have similar names—Indranil and Mahendra They are the Raavan with multiple faces. Satya is Ram who is often associated with the truth. Satya's name also means the truth.
Raja Ravi Varma
The two faces of Raavan
Bulbbul features an old Baul song Kalankini Radha, originally written by Radharaman Dutta. The song is about Raas Leela where Radha is warned by her friends that the naughty Kanha is waiting for her. A few lines of the song are spoken by Binodini when she sees Bulbbul's attraction towards Satya. Earlier, Satya had also spoken the same lines from Kalankini Radha to Bulbbul while writing their story. Bulbbul is a bit of both Sita and Radha.
There is also a lot of foreshadowing in Bulbbul that gives out hints of things to come later. During her wedding ceremony, Bulbbul sees Satya from behind the betel leaves as if she is marrying him. Though she gets married to Indranil, the scene portended the future where Bulbbul starts liking Satya. Later, a young Satya narrates the story of a chudail, living in the trees, who was waiting to gobble up the princess. This is also the story of Bulbbul. When they grow up, Satya and Bulbbul work on a story together. Satya is piqued that Bulbbul brings a spooky element in their story, which again signals the events of the future. After Satya returns from abroad, he asks Bulbbul as to which woman is capable of a brutal murder. A voice in the background is heard calling, "Badi Bahu," as if replying to Satya's question.
Bulbbul's feelings for her brother-in-law have roots in Satyajit Ray's gorgeous Charulata where a lonely housewife Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) falls in love with her brother-in-law Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee). Like Bulbbul, Charu displays a visible fondness for Amal. However, the objects of the two women's affection in the two films seem to be oblivious to those feelings. Amal does not realize that Charu is in love with him until much later while the signs had been there all along. Likewise, when Satya is asked to move to London, he is unaffected while Bulbbul is nonplussed by the thought of his departure. Like Amal and Charu share an interest in writing and poetry, Satya and Bulbbul write a story together. Captivity and confinement is also a theme in both films. In the opening scene of Charulata, Charu follows the proceedings outside her house, like a bird hopping from one window to another. Many sequences in Charulata have been shot from behind the bars and pillars underscoring that Charu is trapped in a cage. The film was also based on Rabindra Nath Tagore's NastanirhThe Broken Nest. The visual language of Bulbbul also reflects this entrapment. Bulbbul is the story of a trapped bird. At some stage, Bulbbul is also shown peeking out from the window resembling that she is trapped in a prison.
I was also thinking of Ray's Pather Panchali while watching the kaash flowers in Bulbbul. In Pather Panchali, Apu and Durga run across a field to watch a train passing through the village. It is memorable also because the field is full of kaash flowers that add to the scene's beauty. I was reminded of the same when a withering Bulbbul wakes up with a scream surrounded by kaash flowers in her rooms, signifying that the chudail has taken over her body. In the last few moments of the film, Indranil returns to the mansion and the house is brimming with the exuberance of kaash flowers indicating Bulbbul's presence. These flowers are associated with Durga Puja underscoring the linkages that the witch is also the goddess.
Bulbbul and Satya wanted to write a story together. When the time comes, Satya departs as his part is done and asks Bulbbul to finish the rest. An inconsolable Bulbbul is scared of a future without Satya, unsure if their story—real and reel—will ever be completed. Like her namesake bulbul from Haider, whose dreams were poisoned by a baaz, Bulbbul is left wingless by the men in her life. She realizes that unlike the fairy tales, there is no prince charming who will rescue her and give her story a beautiful ending. She has to write her own story because the protagonists of stories are only puppets of the pen; the real power is held by the one writing its prose.
1) Bulbbul was addressed as Badi Bahu in the house. There was a Choti Bahu in Abrar Alvi's Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam
2) Bulbbul's title credits are lovely and depict the motifs associated with Bulbbul beautifully.
3) There is a Sherlock Holmes reference in Bulbbul.
4) Anvita Dutt thanks the Amroods in the credits.
5) There is the mention of the Acting Workshop as well.
6) Veera Kapur Ee who plays Pishi Maa is also the costume designer for the film.
7) Bulbbul's introduction theme by Amit Trivedi.
8) Feet shots in Ritesh Batra's Photograph.
Other Reading:
1) On Pari: Not A FairytaleLink
2) On NH10Link
3) On PhobiaLink
4) On Game OverLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Badi haveliyon me bade raaz hote hain."
—Binodini, Bulbbul

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Trivia Post 16

I am adding some trivia notes for the last few weeks.

1) Urmila Matondkar in Shyam Benegal's Kalyug.
2) In Shyam Benegal's Kalyug, after Karan (Shashi Kapoor) learns the truth about his birth from his biological mother, he is seen curled up in the fetal position. In 2013, Alfonso CuarĂ³n also showed the metaphorical rebirth of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity by putting her in this position after she comes out of a life-threatening maneuver in the space shuttle. Shyam Benegal did it much earlier in 1981. 
3) Jhumpa Lahiri in Mira Nair's The Namesake.
4) Kumud Mishra in Mahesh Bhatt's Swabhimaan TV series.
5) A fantastic shot from Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Abhimaan. It could be titled Man and Ego, as it perfectly shows Subir and his ego that is slowly growing making him jealous of his wife's success.
6) Men on top of the world in Ram Gopal Verma's Satya (1998) and Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara (2006).  
7) Teji Bachchan and Harivansh Rai Bachchan in Yash Chopra's Kabhi Kabhie
8) Ramola Bachchan in Yash Chopra's Silsila
9) I was thinking of Kaveri Amma (Kishori Ballal) from Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades. She sent Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan) to collect money from Haridas (Bachan Pachehra) even though she knew he won't be able to pay Mohan. But that very journey transformed Mohan to let go of his mineral water and embrace the water of his motherland. She was the catalyst for the change. 
10) In Mohit Suri's Malang—A man, running away from the police, gets lost in a sea of red and white on Christmas. In Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani—A woman, running away from the police, gets lost in a sea of red and white on Durga Puja.
11) Netflix subtitles change Ola to Uber in Anurag Kashyap's Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai. Its subtitling guidelines clarify the reason. 
12) Netflix also subtitles Langde Bapu to Sir-Limps-A-Lot in Rajkumar Santoshi's Andaz Apna Apna. This was also the nickname of Chandler in Friends
13) Rishi Kapoor as a bee and Padmini Kolhapure as a flower in Raj Kapoor's Prem Rog.
14) Burning bridges in Mani Ratna's Dil Se and Raavan.
15) Please tell me I am not the only one who sees a striking resemblance between Jugal Hansraj and Karisma Kapoor. The below still is from Mahesh Bhatt's Papa Kehte Hain
16) The poster of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding. It is made of a single sketch line.
17) I made this meme. #KhoonBhariMaang Forever. Please laugh at it. :)
18) I absolutely love this shot from Shaad Ali's OK Jaanu.
19) Saajan often brings saawan in films. Also, saawan can convey many double meanings, if you know what I mean. :)
"Saajan aayo re, saawan laayo re, main poori bheegi re, mann behkaayo re." — OK Jaanu 
"Aoge jab tum, O Saajna, angana phool khilenge. Barsega saawan, barsega saawan, jhoom jhoom ke." — Jab We Met
20) This beautiful moment in Sajid Ali's Laila Majnu
21) Pakhi and curtains in Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera
22) One of the notes from my previous trivia posts was posted as a question on India Wants To Know Quiz. The kind folks there invited me for a panel as well but I could not join due to some other commitment. Next time :) Also, I was called a film critic; I do not think I am qualified enough to be called one. So, thanks a lot to them and also thanks for crediting the question. Check out the quiz here
23) In Ayan Mukerji's Wake Up Sid, water plays a special part when Aisha (Konkona Sensharma) realizes she is in love with Sid (Ranbir Kapoor). Something similar happens again when Sid realizes that he is in love with Aisha. I love these moments in films when people gradually realize that they have fallen in love. It is beautiful.
24) I added the lovely title song of Abhishek Verman's Kalank in a moment in Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera.
Finally, my blog turned thirteen-years-old yesterday. I cannot believe it. I hope I am able to maintain it for more years and not give up writing. Happy birthday, dear blog. And, thank you to all the people who have been kind to it.

Dialogue of the Day:
"Usne kabhi mudke nahi dekha aur maine intezaar bhi nahi kiya."
—Naina, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani