What does it mean to be a 15-year-old growing up in a remote village in Assam? “Village Rockstars” director Rima Das’ new film “Bulbul Can Sing” suggests that emotions are universal – the confusion, the self-consciousness, the intense joy in friendship and silliness, and the desperate need for freedom. For every teenager, the struggle is real.
Despite the emotions that one so clearly recognises, the story of the teenager here is very personal. Once again, this is the power of the filmmaker’s lyrical storytelling – evidenced in all its raw beauty in “Village Rockstars”. The new film, however, is darker; it captures the pain of adolescence and sexual identity. And yet it has hope shining through, like a rainbow in one of its final scenes.
Bulbul (Arnali Das) is the daughter of a poor pig farmer, who sings devotional songs at night in a house lit up by oil lamps. His one dream is for his daughter to sing. But Bulbul can’t seem to make her thin voice soar; she is self-conscious singing in front of people.
It is with her friends Bonnie and Suman that Bulbul’s free spirit bursts through. In one scene, we see the three friends bathing in the river together, Suman, a lanky boy, scrubbing Bulbul’s back. Suman is struggling with his identity – he’s often referred to as “Ladies” by his schoolmates and taunted mercilessly. Yet he can be himself with his two friends: Bonnie, who has a boyfriend, and Bulbul, who is the object of affection of another classmate Parag.
This story is as much about this band of friends as it is about Bulbul specifically. Rima captures their lives in minutae, from Bulbul tending to the pigs, to the three of them dressing up for school functions, studying English together or noisily playing Ludo at the tiny, ramshackle tea shop run by Bonnie’s widowed mother.
Early on in the film, Bulbul is told not to leave her long hair loose, or it will attract the souls of dead girls. The words play out poignantly in your head, as tragedy interrupts their lives.
“Bulbul Can Sing” unfolds unhurriedly, as if matching the pace of life in a small village. It can get testing especially in the later half, but stay with it. The film reflects on the patriarchal nature of society, the different attitudes towards men and women, and also the disturbing moral policing that takes place in every corner of our country.
As in the case of “Village Rockstars”, Rima again serves as pretty much a single-person crew on this film. She’s written, directed, produced, cast, edited and shot the film herself, which also makes her responsible for the breathtaking visuals, like when the all-pervasive darkness of night in a village with no electricity is lit up in spurts by firecrackers and oil lamps on a Diwali night.
Rima also believes in casting non-professional actors and this is her calling card. The three teenagers at the heart of this film bring great authenticity to the story. Manoranjan Das as Suman, especially stands out – it’s a stunning portrayal of a boy struggling with himself. But this is Bulbul’s story of finding herself. And Arnali Das, as our long-haired, short frock-wearing heroine who plays with insects and goat kids, is superb. This child-woman character has a harsh awakening – but, as we happily see, she has the spirit to ride it through.
I’m going with three and half out of five for “Bulbul Can Sing”. Both charming and bruising, it’s a worthy companion piece to “Village Rockstars”. It’s pure, simple, and deeply moving. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 3.5 / 5