In Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul, echoes from stories surrounding Rabindranath Tagore's family home Jorasanko
Aruna Chakravarti's Jorasanko gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Tagore women, from which many aspects take centre-stage in Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul.
Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul has garnered well-deserved critical acclaim across the board. Set in pre-Independence Bengal, Bulbbul’s late 1900s milieu is steeped in the socio-political tropes of the time — an era rife with revolutionary writings of Rabindranath Tagore, calling for the nation's freedom.
As cries of Bande Mataram echoed in the streets outside, Bengal was mired in a civil war of sorts. Almost parallel to the national upheaval was brewing a domestic protest that threatened to topple the state’s age-old, autocratic rule of the antarmahal (the inner sanctum of Bengali aristocratic households meant strictly for the ladies). Women were embracing their oppressor’s “free ways” and challenging customs that required them to only be nurturing figure-heads to their overachieving, worldly male counterparts.
A pioneer in many fields of thought and freedom, Tagore's own household (of the erudite zamindars) told a very different story when juxtaposed with his ideologies of free state and decolonisation. Aruna Chakravarti's Jorasanko gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Tagore women, from which many aspects take centre-stage in Dutt's Netflix film. Though termed a work of fiction, Chakravarti was known to have drawn heavy inspiration from real-life incidents in the North Calcutta (as it was termed then) mansion that was adept at burying less-than-exemplary family members’ notorious secrets.
Much like the times, Dutt’s Bulbbul charted a story of self-evolution (with a supernatural arc). But that came in action only after the protagonist vehemently broke away from the confinements of a ‘peaceful’ home life. Throughout the film, Dutt draws inspiration from Tagore tropes and subverts them to expose the extreme pain and isolation lying underneath.
A Literary Muse
Tagore had a literary companion in his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, Jyotirindranath's child-bride who entered the family clueless and helpless when she was only 10 years old (senior to Tagore by two). In an excerpt from her book, Chakravarti defines the ‘ideal woman’ through Kadambari’s demeanour, “Every morning saw her (Kadambari), freshly bathed and ready to set herself to any task she may be called upon to perform. Subhankari (a member of the household) declared to the world at large that their natun bouma (new bride) was a Laxmi incarnate. And she looked like one too, with her wet hair hanging down her back and the red border of her sari, drawn over her head…”
The general perception of a woman was such. Her duties would abound within her familial periphery and the ones devoted to their roles were hailed near-perfect, almost God-like, bringing in prosperity to the household.
Yet, Kadambari’s narrative (in the novel) speaks of a difficulty that many women faced during the time. She yearned for validation from her husband, both emotional and physical, which she probably did not receive.
Her account exposes the insecurities of a young girl who was trying to overcome the maddening oppression of the antarmahal. A significant portion of her initial years at Jorasanko was spent trying to woo her husband and get his attention. Gauging Jyotirindra’s aesthetic nature, she adorned the room with fragrant flowers, the terrace with aromatic shrubs and ferns, and the bed with embroidered covers and sheets. But Jyotirindra, though always affable, remained largely indifferent.
“Kadambari saw, and the realisation cut her to the heart, that he never sought her out himself. He came to her only when she sent for him, spoke to her easily but briefly, then departed with promises of giving her more time in future. And he didn’t seem to miss her at all during his long absences from Kolkata,” Chakravarti writes.
Alone and loveless, Kadambari was known to fall prey to frequent bouts of depression. Her loneliness somehow matched Rabindranath’s and they found in each other a literary, philosophical, and on occasion, an emotional partner. Often looked upon with suspicious eyes, their relationship grew out of the mutual isolation they experienced within the sprawling walls of Jorasanko.
This dynamic could well be the cornerstone behind Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) and Satya’s (Avinash Tiwary) relationship. The disparity between Bulbbul and her considerably older husband Indranil (Rahul Bose) was apparent from the first shot of their ‘union’. Through Siddharth Diwan’s keen lens, Bulbbul even smiles at Satya seconds before the shubodhristi (the first time the bride sees the groom before marriage, considered an auspicious ritual), blithely unaware of what the future holds.
On Indra’s declaration that Satya was to be shipped off to England to pursue his higher studies, Bulbbul completely breaks down. The desperation to hold onto her only confidant, her sole support system above and beyond the clawing, judgemental glances circling her, is acute. As Bulbbul sobs uncontrollably at a clueless Satya’s parting goodbye, Dutt brought back to memory Kadambari’s devastation on her beloved Rabi’s departure, which came with his marriage to Mrinalini Devi.
As Chakravarti puts it, “A fragment of a song, as yet unwritten, stirred in his (Rabindranath’s) head. 'Sakha he,' (oh my beloved!) he hummed beneath his breath, 'ele na' (you never came).” The words hold the frustration of an eternal wait, one which dominated Kadambari’s life before she died by suicide.
Dutt, however, refuses to destroy her protagonist this way. Over the years, Satya and Bulbbul forge a bond over the written word – they exchange story ideas and Satya instills in her a deep connection to the chudail (witch).
Her psychological and physiological transformation is a personification of Satya’s concocted words and thoughts; her evolution deeply embedded within her brother-in-law’s idea of a woman hungry for justice, phantasmagoria aside.
The seeds of Bulbbul's emancipation are thus sowed early in her life by her only companion, even if inadvertently.
The series' narrative arc focusing on Mahendra (also played by Rahul Bose), Indranil’s intellectually disabled twin, wades into murky waters. Dutt’s creative choice to place Mahendra as Bulbbul’s rapist could seem odd at first, especially since the character’s condition may dilute his accountability.
The stimulus behind this seems drawn from Jorasanko as well: Tagore’s older brother Birendranath was known to have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. But his condition was hardly a deterrent for Sarada Sundari Devi (Rabindranath’s mother) to search for the prettiest of brides for her precious son. A young Prafullamoyi was chosen for Birendra; the sexual and physical violence she faced from her husband was yet another instance of the injustices faced by the daughters-in-law of Jorasanko.
Chakravarti narrates instances of shocking apathy shown by the family members towards Prafulla being raped by her husband. Despite her evident bruises, she received absolutely no support. The elders in the house turned a blind eye to the abuse and in fact, Sarada reacted in a completely adversarial manner. Sarada’s desperation to prove to the public that her son was "normal" resulted in her vitriolic reaction towards Prafulla. The girl who had once held Sarada’s attention and was her favourite, seemed to suddenly be the cause of irritation and annoyance.
“He (Birendra) seemed to be growing worse. And she (Sarada) blamed his wife for it. What was the use of having a face like a flower and skin like satin if a woman couldn’t hold her husband’s attention and win his love? She gave long lectures and reams of advice to her daughter-in-law, quite forgetting that the girl had barely entered her teens while her son was a full-grown male,” writes Chakravarti in her book.
Similarly, Mahendra’s violation of Bulbbul is never spoken about, barring Binodini’s (her sister-in-law) cold words.
The ‘lucky’ ones
Chakravarti describes the main storyline in Jorasanko as dealing with the “process by which the Tagore daughters-in-law evolved from raw, unlettered village girls into some of the first women of the land”.
She mentions that marriages in the household were “dramatically mismatched” owing to the Tagores being Pirali Brahmins, two of their family members having converted to Islam and the later conversion into the Brahmo culture. These factors rendered the possibility of finding appropriate girls for marriage quite scarce because of the social stigma attached to the two faiths. The chosen girls hailed from economically inferior backgrounds and were hence “unexposed to the wealth, enlightenment and cultural superiority of their new family”. This resulted in their emotional struggle to ‘fit in’, needing the constant support and validation of their respective spouses.
Through the years, the Tagore status grew in bounds and reached its peak during Rabindranath’s times, owing to his global influence and appeal.
A people highly conscious of caste divisions and social stature, they would often school the girls about their fortuitous marriages as justification for the ill-treatment they were meted out. The girls’ social limitations made them easy targets to mould into submission and swear them to secrecy, so the family name could flourish in the public eye.
Binodini’s (Paoli Dam) monologue to Bulbbul the morning after she is raped speaks to this sentiment. As she carefully dresses the injured young woman, Binodini gives a stoic lecture that signifies the sorry state of women compelled to turn against the other in order to survive. Binodini’s personal tragedies prove that the oppression was at a systemic level and functioned within a vicious cycle.
For Bulbbul, Dutt couldn’t have chosen the intricacies within a more appropriate family than the Tagores. The Tagores were a clear reflection of the times and of a deep-seated existential ambiguity that generations of post-colonial Indians grappled with.
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