Rima Das, a self-taught filmmaker, emerged with the impressive and empathic coming-of-age tale “Village Rockstars,” set in rural Assam. Premiered in 2017 at TIFF, her movie later grabbed several National Awards in India, including The Best Feature Film. Following its success, Das comes back with “Bulbul Can Sing”. Once again the director takes us to the idyllic location of her village Kalardiya. This strategy reminds of the eminent writer R.K. Narayan, who created the alluring universe of a daily routine and simplicity in his stories about fictional South Indian town Malgudi, adapted for a small screen by Shankar Nag. Narayan, a chronicler of common life and people, had a keen eye for detail. Das, alike him, compassionately portrays casual people in ordinary situations and shares the author’s interest in women acting against prevailing traditions. Yet the journey of her characters is much more intimate and intrinsic.
Bulbul (Arnali Das) is an adolescent schoolgirl. Her charming name means “a nightingale,” as her father, a folk musician, would like her to follow his footsteps. Unfortunately, the girl’s teachers do not think her musical talent matches her name. Having a voice that sounds flat and thin, Bulbul is not comfortable with public performances.
Apart from that, she is an ordinary teen, going to school, helping her mother with chores and hanging out with her friends: a cheerful girl Bonnie (Bonita Thakuriya) and a sensitive boy, Suman (Manoranjoan Das). The trio spends a lot of time together, sharing laughs, amusements and the deepest secrets. A bond between them is intimate, but free of any erotic tensions. Both Bulbul and Bonnie have their school admirers, with whom they exchange first clumsy embraces.
Suman’s quest is a more complex one. His way of being doesn’t match gender patterns set by a community so he is bullied by peers, who nickname him “ladies”. Suman tries not to bother although in a minute of crisis he sorrowfully confides to girls: “God made me like that. Is it my fault?”. His sexual identity and orientation are never explained — not being fully self-aware, he only senses his own “oddity”. Words of Bulbul ‘s father devotional song reflect Suman’s complaint: “Lord. I am ignorant/ Trying to understand the world”.
“Bulbul…,” likewise “Village Rockstars,” reflects on feminism in a patriarchal world. In the earlier movie though the theme of womanhood in male-dominated society was just subtly signaled. Now it rings loud and with more dramatic tones. The story’s protagonists are older, so they face different problems. In a way, Bulbul is a teenage version of the naughty tomboy Dhunu from “Village Rockstars,” who was rebelliously looking for her identity. However Dhunu, a 10-year-old, enjoyed the freedom and naive innocence of a kid, while Bulbul, entering adolescence, starts experiencing the boundaries that society imposes. “Why are you so angry?,” “Girls should be modest,” “Girls should behave well,” and “You should be calmer,” she keeps hearing from her mother. A symbolic restrain comes even from Suman, who half jokingly advises her to tie her long, loose hair or she might attract attention of a vengeful female ghost. Bulbul, defying conservative community’s idea of what is proper for her, doesn’t defy her femininity. She may climb trees barefoot, but wears floral dresses, and she is slowly discovering her sexuality.
However Das alarms that in the repressive society, there is no space for youths to embrace their awakening needs. Innocent experiences are considered unnatural offence requiring punishment. So-called moral policing and mob violence known from Indian headlines appear on stage. Shockingly, for conservative elders and school officials, there’s nothing wrong in brutal assault, while first kisses are a crime. “What would people say” and fusty morality become more important than the pupil‘s wellbeing and future. After a warm and charming start, suddenly the tale turns darker. This tonal twist corresponds with the heroine’s transition between the two worlds: childhood and adulthood. To experience love and to endure pain and loss are an inevitable part of it.
Rima Das is a one-woman band. She scripts and produces her movies, directs them, designs the sets, takes the camera and then makes the finishing touches in the editing room. “Bulbul… “ is no exception. Das’ means of expression are simple. Maybe not free from technical flaws (like out-of-focus frames), but powerful and sincere. The non-professional cast is doing excellent. The camerawork shapes the intimate and sensual atmosphere, illustrating the protagonists’ union with nature: their feet tickled by the grass, faces washed by the rain, and skin brushed with sunbeams. Assamese landscape, with its boundless lakes, lush green paddy fields, and vast grasslands, seems outrageously beautiful.
With “Bulbul…” the director matured as an auteur. Delivering the audience a poignant tale in her distinguishing style, she has definitely found her voice — as her heroine had, when in a moment of remorse and despair, she finally sung for herself, channeling tangled emotions.