Rima Das and poster of Bulbul Can Simgh

The year is 1950. Satyajit Ray during his visit to London, watched the Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves directed by Vittorio De Sica. Inspired by the minimalism and candour of the film, Ray wrote the first draft of his magnum opus Pather Panchali on his way back to India.

Unaware, his foundation, his quest for simplicity, and his parallel films would go on to inspire many generations of filmmakers to come – from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson and from Shyam Benegal to Rima Das. ‘Calm Without, Fire Within’ was the title of Ray’s essay on Japanese Cinema, implying the stillness yet the excruciating narrative of Japanese films, which could apply equally well to BulBul Can Sing.

Rima Das, the director of Bulbul Can Sing, admitted on several occasions that she was inspired by Ray’s Pather Panchali and other notable works of Iranian masters Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami. The ‘Eklavya’ of Assamese Cinema, an epithet best suited to honour her self-taught beginnings, is a mirror reflection of her gurus; capturing daily life to create a harmonic experience of the deepest emotions.

Only after a year of the release of the colossal Village Rockstars, did Rima Das exhibit her third feature film, Bulbul Can Sing. Unlike the Swarna Kamal (Village Rockstars, at the 65th National Film Awards), which swept through the theatres with Dhunu and her band of rockstars, Bulbul Can Sing is a darker and more complex film of teenage trials.

Amidst the considerable amount of indie films produced in India every year, the cinéma vérité of Bulbul alone provides enough zeal to attract attention. The film flags off with huge confidence that it is not going to be your everyday melodrama. Bulbul Can Sing is about friendship, love, conflict, and balance. Life and death, where singing is a metaphor for hope. Just as Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God sees the truth, but waits, suggests in itself – “but when the order for his release came, Iván Dimitich Aksënov was already dead.”

Bulbul Can Sing is intricately stitched together with several themes, layers, and sub-layers. The story is told from the point of view of Bulbul, the teenage daughter of a pig farmer. Her two best friends, Bonny, the daughter of a self-employed widow, and Suman, a homosexual boy, are her constant companions. Bulbul has a lover from school, who writes her poetry.

The film also explores Suman’s narrative who being bullied by men and children alike. People call him ‘ladies’ for not living up to their expectations of masculinity. The story takes a darker turn when Bulbul, Bonny, and their boyfriends were suspended from school when found in the woods, kissing, by a bunch of local moral police.

The events and the characters in the film are, in a way, inspired by real events and people. Manoranjan Das, who plays Suman, was in real life a target of ridicule by the local bullies. Rima Das initially wanted to make a documentary named Ladies based on Manoranjan’s life, but later resorted to a feature film due to his family’s insecurities.

Bonny, played by Banita Thakuria, who committed suicide, is based on the true story of her best friend, who also died under similar circumstances. Bulbul, played by Arnali Das, overshadowed by patriarchal traditions, remains headstrong and rebellious; a mirror image of the director who herself writes, directs, produces, shoots, and edits her films.

Das’ approach to filmmaking is grounded in her persona. She juxtaposes bits and pieces from her imminent surrounding to create a story, a true cinéma vérité at that. This technique allows her total control over the selection of plots and themes from a vast array of physical and societal elements. Moreover, she uses gritty and raw images which make the film feel even more real and unscripted.

However, her real mastery lies in the creation of her characters. Bulbul, Suman, and Bonny are so well written that the audience embarks on their journey of self-discovery. Her characters speak less but their actions resonate throughout the canvas. The combination of great characters, bold diction and detailed imagery makes the experience outright electrifying.

The film communicates through three distinct worlds. Firstly, the world where Bulbul is with her parents or in a social sphere, where she is most timid. In this world, she sustains the constant pressure of living up to her father’s dream of becoming a singer. This is where she has to encounter a pervert teacher and where society imposes its standards upon her.

Secondly, the world where Bulbul shares the screen with her friends; where she is most relaxed and accessible. This is her fun world. This is where she explores the fruits teenage has to offer, where she can share her desires and insecurities with her friends unwaveringly. Among all this bewilderment, lastly, there’s the world where she is all by herself, among nature and life. This is the world where she is most alive and transcends into a spiritual dimension. Amidst her love for rain, mud, animals, and poetry, Bulbul only alone does find her peace.

Rima Das was successful in distinguishing these worlds from each other, very subtly however impactfully. The changes in the production design are excellent examples. The film looks gloomy when the children are in their dull school clothes or when bulbul is expected to live as per societal norms. But when the trio is by themselves, their colourful clothes shed light onto the screen. The frames, however, look most aesthetic when Bulbul is all alone, where the director uses beautiful sunsets and colourful landscapes as a backdrop.

Moral policing, an important theme in the film, becomes evident right from the beginning when Suman dictates Bulbul not to leave her hair open in public or she will be haunted by ghosts. Rima Das very subtly suggests that moral policing is rooted deep within our culture, since, even Suman, who is a victim of social prejudice, does not let it pass. This theme recurs time and time again in the film.

Through mothers who ask their daughters to be more modest or through the village men who believe physical intimacy before marriage is a taboo. Moral policing proves to be the path to the whale’s belly, for our protagonists’ lives change after getting caught in the so-called terrible act of caressing.

Poverty, social prejudice, and patriarchy are other visible themes in the movie. While people make videos in front of the Taj Mahal, Bulbul can only photoshop them into her pictures. A brilliant scene can be recalled as an example where everyone from Bulbul’s family was tending their pig stead when a neighbour claims he will instead earn less rather than breed filthy pigs. Other sequences similar to this when Bulbul’s father is unable to find his shirt without his wife or daughter’s assistance, and a ceremony to wash Bulbul off of her sins, leave a lasting impression on the viewers. Rima Das once said that the Assamese society, although mature in a lot of ways, is still holding onto several norms which demean women.

Throughout the film, Rima Das’ storytelling remains gentle and quiet, with little to no music, no melodrama, and a realistic depiction of the world we live in. Nonetheless, the intensity of the film keeps rising. The film makes even more impact with the suicide of Bonny and the two scenes following it.

One is when Suman is afraid to go to school after his friends were expelled because there is no one to defend him from the bullies and another is when Bulbul ponders upon the broken swing that she and her friends once strung together. After her best friend dies, Bulbul distances herself from people and resolves to her world of nature, where there is no one to judge her.

Bulbul Can Sing, apart from being a great film, remains an important one as it sparks the beginning of a new wave of filmmaking in Assam. That too an independent one. Because of the limited tools and budget, Das had to manage the production all by herself. But this also allowed her total control over the film’s aesthetics. Nonetheless, Bulbul Can Sing has a look and a vibe that is noticeably Rima Das-ian.

Unlike mainstream films that exploit stereotypes in the name of entertainment, Rima Das does not corner the audience into a cocoon of melancholy but wants them to look at the larger picture and analyze the frames from several perspectives. Or perhaps she does not want us to analyze anything but observe and absorb the characters’ lives as they are.

Amborish Bordoloi can be reached at: amborish123321@gmail.com