Quickie: Bulbbul (2020) and The Twin Pillars of Patriarchy
Updated: Aug 28
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead! If you haven't watched the film I suggest going through the plot summary before reading this post.
Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul takes from the Chudail stories of Bengal and adds a feminist spin to it. While the film can serve as a classic example of style presiding over substance where the exquisite visual experience keeps viewers detached from the story, the style serves an unique purpose in two very crucial scenes i.e. the abuse scenes of Bulbbul.
When Indranil lets himself loose on Bulbbul (Tripti Dimry) there is no diegetic sound (Bulbbul's screams, the impact of the fire iron, the sound of Bulbbul's breaking bones). In addition the cinematography, music and editing come together to deliver a spectacle which keeps us from connecting to the horror and trauma of the event taking place on screen. This detachment provides us with an unique opportunity to observe Indranil's untethered rage without being overwhelmed by Bulbbul's pain. By capturing Indranil's action in slow-motion not once but twice, and juxtaposing it with Raja Ravi Varma's 1895 Jatayu Vadham Dutt forces us to focus on the Raavan in the scene rather than the Sita. On the background of the blood splattering fire iron is Indranil's blurred reflection and not Bulbbul's shattered legs. Bulbbul's expression seems more of confusion and disbelief than one of agony implying once again that the central emotion of the scene is shock at what is happening rather than a mournful acceptance of one's own incapacity.
The scene with Mahendra, although different in tone than the previous abuse scene, takes its time to build on his childlike excitement at finally being able to "play" with Bulbbul. As Bulbbul's pained moans result in Mahendra's glee we are reminded that this bearded muscular man is indeed an infant with no sense of the world around him except for his own pleasures. In his attempts to wake Bulbbul up after raping and unwittingly murdering her the film re-establishes the naivety of Mahendra.
Indranil and Mahendra (both played by Rahul Bose) together represent the twin pillars of patriarchy- one driven by egotism, jealousy, rage and an obligation to discipline and control women while the other is fuelled by infantile pleasures that fail to view women as anything more than guriyas (doll/plaything) oblivious of the fact that their play is suffocating and eventually killing the women. A strong argument for this interpretation is the fact that Indranil displays no romantic or sexual interest towards Bulbbul even after she is a full-grown adult; his jealousy is driven entirely by egotism. Just like in the film in life too the first pillar breaks women down and limits their movement so the second pillar can fulfill their desires with minimal hurdles. In the real world though the two kinds often fuse together into more sadistic combinations, and rarely does one kind act as a monitor to the other.
The other characters too represent significant patriarchal figures found across the globe- Binodini (Paoli Dam) the victim cum apologizer; Satya (Avinash Tiwary) the wilfully ignorant who refuses to see what is right in front of his eyes and once forced to see decides to leave rather than do something about it; the Kotwal (police) a stand-in for the impotent legal system. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) although not a patriarchal figure is able to do little more than dress up wounds and help make the pain bearable while offering no way-outs. Bulbbul's feet are also highly symbolic which first needed to be bound, then broken, then covered up before finally turning around completely as Bulbbul began walking in directions opposite to the one she was meant to.
While succeeding in symbolisms what Bulbbul fails to do is depict a late 19th to early 20th century Bengal under British Raj. Bulbbul's naivety which the film hints on repeatedly seems fake. Child brides generally knew of their marriage and all it entails although they may not have been able to gauge its full implications. Satya's ignorance to the goings-on of the manor and his subsequent disgust towards Indranil appear exaggerated. The young Bulbbul, grown-up Satya and to some extent Sudip are 21st century characters planted into a 19th century story where they struggle to fit in. Bulbbul would have been violated as a teenager only, especially since the Child Marriage Restraint Act wouldn't arrive till 48 years later. Although beatings like that of Indranil may not have been the norm domestic violence used to be the rule rather than the exception aided by sayings like "If your husband doesn't hit you he doesn't love you." It was surprising that the film didn't depict instances of Mahendra assaulting Binodini. How Mahendra learned to "play" with "guria"s is also not shown. Nowhere in the film can any other family member or relatives of the principal characters be seen, which is odd. A lack of servants and courtesans can also be observed though that is not entirely impossible. What struck out most was the lack of children in the manor. Having multiple children, preferably sons, would be expected of any household. It is not merely a question of wanting or not wanting children. In 19th Century societies a man with no offsprings would not be considered a man at all, more so for a Zameendaar with no male heir. A character like Indranil would definitely expect a child from Bulbbul. Post Indranil's departure it would have been impossible for Bulbbul to lord over the manor as no one would ever accept her authority. Childless women experienced far severe forms of ostracism than even sex-workers. Before Mahendra's death Binodini's authority would still be accepted with respect to her Thakur husband but Bulbbul's reign is in no way probable. Also, there seems to be no sign of the British Raj except for Satya's visit to London and our knowledge of the era. Bengali terms like "Boudi (sister-in-law)", "Sankhchurni (Bengali for Chudail), or "Angot (toe ring)" would have worked better as would have Bengali alphabets on the pages of Bulbbul's diary. Some details do stand out like the child-sized bed in young Bulbbul's room implying that she was never meant to grow up there at all.
As for the story Bulbbul offers nothing special in terms of horror or feminism. Despite what the title suggests the film is not about Bulbbul, or revenge, or divine justice. Bulbbul is a 88 minutes long lament on the inescapable fates of people trapped inside the patriarchal machinery- some as perpetrators; some as victims; and some like Binodini, both. It holds the perpetrators accountable without pointing fingers. It sympathizes with the victims without pitying. The film screams without a sound, weeps without tears and metes out justice without commenting on morality. It just makes you sorry at the all too predictable turn of events. When Sudip encounters Bulbbul in the jungle her expression almost seems to say "Who else?". The film makes you feel like a real-life observer of abuse who knows what will happen, exactly how it will happen, but is powerless to do anything about it. Watching Bulbbul feels like running into that neighbourhood aunty whom you know to be a victim of domestic violence- being desensitized enough to not be overwhelmed by her pain, yet compassionate enough to heave a silent sigh every time you notice new bruises on her.
Despite some logical fallacies and overused storytelling techniques Bulbbul manages to explore the woes of 19th Century Bengali women and how women themselves often partake in this abuse. It adequately illustrates that no matter how terrifying a Chudail may be what happened to her (and keeps on happening to countless women even today) is much worse.