Bulbul Can Sing: Rima Das’ Village Rockstars follow-up falls just short of being another masterpiece
Bulbul Can Sing plays like a spiritual sequel to Village Rockstars, in which Dhunu dreams of escaping to musical stardom.
What is even clearer now than it was with Village Rockstars, India’s 2019 Oscar submission, is that director Rima Das — rather, writer-director-producer-editor-cinematographer Rima Das — has carved a unique niche within the world of cinema. She brings to mind Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao, whose The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me touch on the seldom-explored nexus of Native Americans in the modern American Midwest.
Das’ work is similarly naturalistic, and similarly evocative of time and place, though with a wildly different focus. Like Village Rockstars (her second feature after Man with the Binoculars: Antardrishti), Bulbul Can Sing harkens back to her Assamese roots, carefully painting the nuances of its rural backdrop while exploring a dynamic between music and culture.
To talk about Bulbul Can Sing is to talk about its predecessor. The film plays like a spiritual sequel to Village Rockstars, in which 10-year-old Dhunu (Bhanita Das) dreams of a guitar, a band, and escaping to musical stardom. Teenage protagonist Bulbul (Arnali Das), however, represents a more world-weary outlook, in which even music might not be enough to free her. What were once mere hints in Village Rockstars — cultural moorings and the crushing weight of patriarchal tradition — now find themselves constantly in Bulbul’s peripheral vision, until eventually, they are front-and-center.
A reluctant singer with a beautiful voice, Bulbul is on the precipice of adulthood alongside her best friends Bonnie (Bonita Thakuriya), whose mother runs the local eatery, and Suman aka “Sumu” (Manoranjoan Das), whose effeminacy makes him a target of the other boys in the village. Bonnie has a boyfriend and Bulbul has an admirer who writes her poems. The two girls are at that tender age where budding first romances feel like secret treasures, though the "secret" part is key here. The plot, for at least its first two-thirds, involves the trio simply spending time together. They giggle, and meet to do their English homework, and tease each other about “kissing, and then…” before trailing off, as if the mere mention of what comes next might conjure their parents’ wrath.
The few times we are allowed to witness Bulbul outside this dynamic, she is usually at home, in her dimly-lit dwelling, doing household chores and rarely, if ever, speaking. Her father strums away on a stringed instrument, praying through song that he might be shown some kind of path or meaning in his ignorance. Where Bulbul, Bonnie and Sumu anchor the teenage drama, the adults around them paint clear pictures of the world they inhabit. For instance, a pair of farmers argue over whether to breed pigs — creatures they consider filthy, but more lucrative — or goats and cows, which make them far less money but are foundational to their culture.
This argument not only highlights the backdrop of the film, a place and a people trapped between progress and tradition, but it also speaks to the dynamic between Das’ steadily evolving films. Where Dhunu of Village Rockstars had music as wind under her wings, Bulbul’s relationship to music is more complicated. It is a part of her culture, but is it even practical for her to sing? One wonders what path she would follow if she were to embrace it, especially when her teachers and parents seem to force it upon her, making her perform for others without first being able to figure out what singing means to her. It is almost fitting, then, that a scene soon after the farmers’ argument sees one of them nearly attacking a cow when it intrudes upon his field; in Bulbul’s village, even value is conditional.
The structures around Bulbul are cemented through superstition. An early conversation in the film speaks of what happens to young girls’ spirits when they die. The answer is not pretty, but it is the framework of Bulbul and Bonnie’s existence, conditioned by men. Their place was decided by men long ago and it is re-enforced by the boys of today (Sumu, too, ends up a victim of this rigidity, and wonders if he is alone in his experience). Das is not interested in subverting this structure. Rather, she paints an honest, intimate portrait of Bulbul’s surroundings, one that veers between tender and harsh, as the teens character capture brief moments of joy between the discomforts imposed upon them.
These little joys, however, are only experienced in tandem with one another. Bulbul, Bonnie and Sumu are inextricable as friends, but they also function this way in the dramatic framing of the film. Even in a setting as lush and spread-out as this, characters rarely, if ever, escape each other’s orbit. Their moments of laughter, their little victories, are expressed through free-flowing conversations, often with other people and voices lurking just off-screen or out of focus. Though, this approach ends up having a dual effect on the narrative.
On one hand, Das reserves the characters’ moments of isolation for when their dynamic is threatened, both from outside and within, and things finally get dire. She layers her frames with life and movement for the most part, like characters peeping out of brightly painted windows to eavesdrop, which makes the eventual scaling back of this lively ambiance feel all the more lonely.
On the other, the characters do not feel like they exist independently of one another for most of the film. This certainly works on paper for the story Das is trying to tell. The time Bulbul, Bonnie and Sumu spend apart feels almost unnatural, but in the process, most of what we get to know about them is how they feel about each other. While scenes of the characters wandering solo are (rightly) delayed for maximum impact, the characters are rarely, if ever, framed and edited in ways that excavate curiosity or desire, perhaps the most key aspects to their lives at this age.
One scene in particular is a noteworthy exception, but it also proves where the film might be lacking elsewhere. Bulbul meets her admirer in secret, and Das films her with a tenderness rarely seen on screen. Her acne, her split ends, her chipped nail polish, even her unshaven underarms are photographed as but small parts of the larger, beautiful tapestry that is Bulbul, the person. She is not the only character present, but the scene gets to something fundamental about her soul. When teachers and other adults thrust music upon her, she is shackled by self-consciousness. Here, her spirit wanders free.
This freedom is momentarily threatened when Bulbul’s new beau helps her climb a tree. As he grabs her by the arm, Das holds on the impression his fingers leave on her skin, a shot that feels like a jolt of panic given what we know about the world around her. Bulbul’s eyes are closed and Das’ close-up affords her both a moment of worry, and a deep breath with which that worry slips away — as if she is learning to trust another person with her very sense being, and that trust has not come easy.
With just a few shots, and a few details, Das paints an entire picture of Bulbul’s life and the emotional journey she is on. Sadly, Bonnie and Sumu are not afforded this same poetic touch. Their reaction shots, whenever they are afforded them, rarely reveal thought or feeling beneath the surface.
Das does, however, pay that same level of loving detail to the natural surroundings. And while the people around Bulbul feel robbed of interior lives — ultimately, the film does not pack the emotional punch it seems to want to — it is in photographing the natural elements, and how Bulbul interacts with them, that Das flaunts her filmmaking prowess.
In reducing the exposure time for each frame, effectively reducing the shutter angle as one would on a film camera (see also: the the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan), Das shoots water and flame without motion blur, creating the kind of strobe-like effect reserved for moments of intense action.
In subverting this established use of form, Das imbues nature with a life of its own. Each drop of water — whether rain falling on Bulbul’s face, or her splashing in a river with Bonnie and Sumu, or even her chores at home — becomes momentarily visible, individually, apart from the flash and blur that our eyes might normally see. Each drop reflects light in a different way, and as Bulbul watches them rain down from above, each one feels like a possibility.
There is a lot to love about Bulbul Can Sing. Its lead character. How she interacts with her friends. The increasing comfort she finds. There is care and understanding put into crafting each scene, especially in the film’s final half hour, when the characters feel untethered from one another. The film is so, so close to being a masterwork, one that ought to reflect and unearth the lives on screen, and how they intersect. That it falls just short of this goal feels tragic. Das’ eye for naturalism is commendable — as is her actors’ penchant for expressing feeling through rambling, overlapping dialogue — but the existence of a creation as singular as this, telling a tale that feels so new and endearing, is a worthwhile story on its own.
All images from Twitter.
Bulbul Can Sing is now streaming on Netflix India.
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