Early on in “Bulbbul”, a child bride being readied for marriage, is explained the purpose of being fitted with a tight toe-ring that squeezes a sensitive nerve. It is so she doesn’t fly away, she’s told; the exact words are especially stinging – “Vash mein karne ke liye”.

The film opens in 1881 Bengal, and picks up 20 years later. Written and directed by Anvita Dutt, “Bulbbul” is at once a cocktail of supernatural horror, folklore, and feminist fantasy. It is a story of heartbreak and tragedy.

Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) is the lonely wife of a rich zamindar (Rahul Bose), to whom she was married off as a child. Her only friend in that sprawling haveli, her brother-in-law Satya (Avinash Tiwary), is packed off to London for further studies. When he returns some years later he’s surprised to discover that the hapless, forlorn Bulbbul who shared his fascination for spooky stories has transformed into a beguiling woman with an air of mystery about her. He is equally puzzled about a growing number of murders in the neighborhood that the locals believe is the work of a bloodthirsty ‘chudail’ said to be hiding out in the forest.

What comes blazing through as “Bulbbul” unfolds is an unmistakably singular vision. Anvita Dutt, a seasoned screenwriter and lyricist who is making her directing debut, addresses patriarchy and the systemic oppression of women through a clear, crisp narrative that toggles between the present day and the family’s past. The makers also assemble a crack team of collaborators who give the film a distinct visual aesthetic.

Handsomely mounted by production designer Meenal Agarwal and shot evocatively by Siddharth Diwan the film has an otherworldly, dreamlike feel to it. Bathed in shades of reds and crimsons, “Bulbbul” is a feast for the eye, and Amit Trivedi’s unobtrusive haunting score powers the vivid images.

But the film is as much about the darkness that resides in the hearts of men. It is about the unending cruelty, the entitlement, the subjugation that women have had to put up with forever. In one of the film’s best scenes, Bulbbul’s otherwise catty sister-in-law Binodini (played by Paoli Dam) hints at how she came to marry her mentally challenged husband (also played by Rahul Bose).

The film’s climatic twist isn’t hard to guess; what’s interesting is Dutt’s feminist spin on what we think we know about witches. You could argue that the film is too simplistic, and to be fair it is. But the economy with which it goes about its business is admirable.

The acting too is solid. Rahul Bose, playing both Bulbbul’s husband Indranil and his mentally challenged twin Mahendra, delivers strong performances. Avinash Tiwary is effortlessly charming in the frankly underdeveloped ‘hero’ role, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay is in reliably good form as the doctor whose friendship with Bulbbul is resented by Satya.

But the film is really about its women. Tripti Dimri has a beautiful, fragile presence and she doesn’t lose it even when Bulbbul finds her strength. It’s a nicely realized performance; one that leaves you excited to discover the extent of her range. And Paoli Dam is excellent as Binodini whose cunning ways hide deep-rooted frustration.

At a crisp 95 minutes, “Bulbbul” never overstays its welcome. It isn’t especially suspenseful, but it nicely transports you to its world. Above everything else it delivers an important, relevant message with genuine feeling, and it leaves you with enough food for thought.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for “Bulbbul”. I recommend that you make the time for it.

Rating: 3.5 / 5