The horror movie with Tripti Dimri in the lead develops a shaky feet courtesy the shortcomings in the screenplay

Branding a woman who stands up for herself as a witch has been an age-old practice, in fact not just in India, but across the world. History tells us horror stories of many such ‘witches’ who were tortured, maimed and killed. Screenplay writer and lyricist Anvita Dutt’s debut directorial venture Bulbbul, a Netflix original, too revolves around a ‘witch’. Set in 1881 in Bengal Presidency, Bulbbul is a revenge saga. 

Produced by actor Anushka Sharma and brother Karnesh Ssharma under Clean Slate Filmz, Bulbbul fits into the category which the actor-producer has shown a liking for – female centric thrillers. After Phillauri and Pari in which she donned supernatural roles, Sharma’s love for horror movies continues through Bulbbul, only that, this time Tripti Dimri plays the title role instead of Sharma herself. 

Bulbbul is the wife of Indranil (Rahul Bose), head of an aristocratic family, very many years older to her. With them, in that big mansion, lives his developmentally retarded twin brother Mahendra (Bose himself), Mahendra’s wife Binodini (Paoli Dam) and their little brother Satya (Avinash Tiwary.) Bulbbul is brought to the mansion as a terrified child-bride where she finds solace in the friendship of Satya.

Dutt, who has previously associated with movies like Queen and Phillauri, seems to have taken a leaf out of the unrequited love story of Rabindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi in Bulbbul. Devi was only ten when she married Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore, who was a decade older than her. Rabindranath, who was seven then, developed a camaraderie with Devi, who became his muse and his inspiration for his literary journey. A similar relation between Satya and Bulbbul drives the plot of Bulbbul

The tale of a chudail

The trailer of Bulbbul suggested that it is a horror movie set in old times. But the movie doesn’t confine itself to just that. It tries to take on patriarchy and violence against women, a praiseworthy attempt. 

The movie opens with the shot of the small feet of a little Bulbbul perched on a mango tree. As the groom’s procession arrives at her house, she tries to hide among the branches and later mistakes Satya, the only one belonging to her age group among them, for her would-be. In the coming days she learns the truth, but their friendship only gets stronger.

Cut to the present and Satya has returned from London after higher studies only to see that a lot has changed. The village has witnessed a series of murders including that of his brother Mahendra’s. Binodini is now a tonsured widow, Indranil has left home and something has changed about his once timid bhabhi Bulbbul who has taken in hands the reins of the mansion. Her confidence perturbs Satya. The villagers blame the murders on a chudail (witch) with twisted feet, but Satya who dismisses it is hellbent on finding the truth. Eventually his probe becomes his revelation; the big secrets of the big mansion tumble out. 

What could have been an intriguing plot falters when the director starts focusing on style over substance. The blood moon nights, the mysterious forest, the women in bright colours in an ornate mansion that exudes enigma..Dutt’s frames remind us of Sanjay Leela Bhansali films. The visuals are as mesmerising to watch as a beautiful painting. But in between, the script keeps getting thinner and the suspense is anyone’s guess. The music by Amit Trivedi keeps us on our toes without ever going overboard.

Out of focus

In the 1-hour 34-minute movie Dutt portrays child marriage in Bengal in the 19th century and speaks about violence against women throughout. She has succeeded in reminding us that not much has changed for women in this country since then. The atrocities faced by women in Bulbbul are quite similar to the domestic violence cases reported in India even today. 

In an interview, Dutt had said that she was influenced by the fairy tales she heard in her childhood and was interested in knowing about the life of marginalised and misunderstood women, which together led her to writing the story of Bulbbul. Dimri is the soul of the movie; her performance as the timid young wife is impressive and her transformation as the confident but mysterious Thakurain of the mansion a treat to watch.  But when she is meted out with violence, the movie does injustice to the scene by distracting the audience from her horrors by paying too much attention to the aesthetics of the perpetrator’s violence shown in slow-motion.

Bose did his parts well as the patriarch Indranil and the mentally unstable Mahendra. The Bulbbul-Satya pair by Dimri and Tiwary, who debuted in Imtiaz Ali’s Laila Majnu, has shown good chemistry on the screen. Dam’s performance as the conniving choti-bahu who has given into the perils of the patriarchy which forced her to marry a man who wasn’t her choice and to play second fiddle to Bulbbul is impressive. Parambrata Chattopadhyay doesn’t have much to do as Dr. Sudip which remains a half-written character.

The movie gives us a taste of Bengal in the neoclassical era with the architecture, aesthetics, costumes, lamps, and even crockery set perfectly to gel well with the times. The art team has done a fantastic job in recreating the 19th century Bengal. But it sounds odd when the characters speak in Hindi throughout in that perfect Bengali setting. Siddharth Diwan’s camera has brilliantly captured the beauty of a bygone era and has done justice to the genre of the movie.

But it has not been able to compensate for the shortcoming in the writing. The movie doubts the intelligence of the audience and sheds its subtlety at several places making it an awkward watch. It strains under the pressure of making it look exotic, loses its natural flow and becomes a drag midway. What we are left with at the end of the movie, apart from a visual treat, is only the confusion that when did the ‘natural’ cease and ‘supernatural’ began.

— Arjun Ramachandran, blogger and film critic

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