'Bulbul Can Sing': Film Review

Bulbul Can Sing Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of TIFF
Quietly insightful.

Award-winning Indian director Rima Das tells the story of an independent-minded teenage girl from a village in Assam who weathers a tragedy.

Rima Das' three feature films are connected by a powerful thread: their setting, her native village of Kalardiya in the Indian state of Assam. Like writer R. K. Narayan, who set his stories in the fictional South Indian village of Malgudi, Das draws her inspiration from real-life people and places, but turns their lives into compelling fiction. Her new film, Bulbul Can Sing, has a pleasing simplicity and realism. It uses the countryside as the stage on which to dramatize the story of three teenagers searching for their identity, focusing on one girl in particular whose clash with traditional rules of behavior leaves her shaken.

Bulbul feels deeper and more intimate than the joyful coming-of-ager Village Rockstars, Das' story about a rural tomboy who dreams of playing the electric guitar. Rockstars, after winning a host of awards, was crowned Best Feature Film at India's national film awards this year, in a rare win for a film from Assam and for a woman director. Both these films are low on narrative momentum, skipping the sensationalism inherent in a region that has been plagued with decades of violence to offer an affectionate, insightful, honest look at an ordinary young woman growing up in a male-dominated society. Refreshingly, her world is not as closed as one might imagine.

The name Bulbul, which means "nightingale," reflects her religious father's long-cherished desire for his daughter to become a singer. It seems like a bit of a pipe dream; her voice is thin and doesn't project enough to satisfy the school's cranky music teacher. Bulbul seems unperturbed. Wearing a flowery dress, she climbs trees and frolics in the river with her school friends Bonnie and Sumu. She also has a young admirer at school who is writing her poems.

On the cusp between innocence and maturity, 15-year-old Bulbul lives in blissful freedom. The first sign of constraint comes when Sumu tells her to tie back her long, luxuriant hair. She does, after he frightens her with a tale about a girl who killed herself and whose restless ghost comes after girls with loose hair. (Sumu himself is clearly gay and is mercilessly bullied by the other boys, who insult him by calling him "Ladies.")

In this ancient, premodern village of cows, goats, pigs and dirt floors, there are no phones, computers or cars; even shoes are an option. The downside of this innocent world, so close to the earth, the rains, the fields of tall grass and rice paddies, is that the rules governing permissible sexual behavior are breathtakingly strict and conservative.

Bonnie also has a beau, and when she and Bulbul visit a photographer's studio with their boyfriends, he takes their picture with a digital camera and quaintly superimposes their photos over a background of the Taj Mahal, to their general satisfaction. Since parents expect their children to marry young, it seems to be no big deal when the girls and boys meet in the village. They are treading a fine line, as it turns out. The crisis is brought on one day by a group of threatening village men with sticks, who under a darkening sky catch the two couples kissing by the river. Though the violence is more psychological than physical, the scene is tensely lensed and truly frightening, and the consequences are disastrous.

Only by articulating her feelings to another heartbroken woman does Bulbul find some kind of closure. Their mutual support suggests that village society is really full of contradictions and conflicting ideas, and that change is possible — that, after all, Bulbul can sing.

Das is a one-woman film production team, doing the camerawork, editing and production design herself, as well as writing, directing and producing. The result is strongly personal and expressive, at the price of some technical imperfections like out-of-focus shots — which, honestly, don't lessen the film's effect.

Production company: Flying River Films
Cast: Arnali Das, Manoranjoan Das, Manabendra Das, Bonita Thakuriya, Pakija Begam
Director, screenwriter, producer: Rima Das
Co-producer: Jaya Das
Director of photography, production designer, editor: Rima Das 
Music: Dotora, Kabindra Patowary
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

95 minutes