While watching Bulbbul, one might feel like pausing now and then to take a screenshot and freeze the moment. The visuals are so brilliant that you cannot stop yourself. The first time I watched it, I was swept off my feet. I was almost in awe. All the visuals, the imagery, the screen bursting with that extreme red, and the other little details took my breath away. But amid all the awe, there was something in the narrative, something I cannot quite put my fingers on, which kept making me uncomfortable.
Once the film was over, I sat in silence with mixed emotions. As the scenes of this ‘fierce feminist film’ started to come back to me, I could finally unravel the knot in my mind and understand that abstract darkness that was going on.
The first thing that hit me was that Bulbbul, in its way, gets too real. And when I say real, I mean it lets itself go with the bias and prejudices that are prevalent even in today’s society. As a film, it does not rise above the stereotypes of rebel women (not in their human forms and with proper validation from society) taking revenge and rising over men. But in its defence, Bulbbul can easily proclaim that it is what it is. There is probably no other way.
The film has been watched by many and the plot has been discussed in numerous articles but to give a brief idea, Bulbbul follows the trials and tribulations of a girl of the same name. The story unfolds with Bulbbul falling for her younger brother-in-law Satya, her disillusionment in love, her getting beaten by her husband Indranil, her getting raped by her mentally unstable brother-in-law, Mahendra, and dashes of her sister-in-law Binodini acting up like a woman completely engulfed by patriarchy. All these incidents lead to the climax of the film, the Devification of Bulbbul, who starts as a demon but ends up a Devi, for obvious reasons.
I realized that Bulbbul while portraying the issues of women, has ended up being a commentary on how society accepts women who rebel. Portraying rebellious women is a tricky thing and Bulbbul has knowingly or unknowingly succumbed to the norms of society while doing that. It has highlighted some beautiful points that are extremely important and real and has shown them in a way that hits somewhere where it should not. The viewers, at a point, feel like this is the only way to make through; when it is not.
I am a feminist, maybe an imperfect one, but watching Bulbbul without thinking anything almost made me glorify the way the revenge was shown on screen when it should not be the case. Bulbbul appeals, but to our socially conditioned mind, when it should have done the complete opposite. It almost throws the values and morals of society on our face while packing them in a bottle of women empowerment and revenge. In a way, that sells.
Before delving into the main motif of the film, revenge, and justice, let us look at the theme of love in Bulbbul, one of the many elements that made Bulbbul who she is. Bulbbul’s portrayal of love is somewhat problematic as women are never treated as equals by the men in their lives, the film ends up idolizing a type of love that thrives on admiring a woman from afar by ascribing her immortal virtues.
The two men in Bulbbul’s life, Satya and Sudip, portray the two faces of patriarchy that are too relevant even in today’s time. Bulbbul had been in love with Satya since forever and seemed to drown in grief when he left her to study in London. What is curious here is that Satya does not openly show any sadness when he is asked by Indranil to go to London to study. Is he too proud to admit that he will miss Bulbbul or she never mattered to him enough more than an element of having some blissful time in that lonely mansion? We will never know.
Satya is quite full of the entitlement that the males of our society are born with. Once he comes back from London and sees Bulbbul talking to Sudip with her legs on his lap, he loses it. He cannot, of course, show it blatantly because of the ‘liberal’ he is, but he does not even think twice before showing his annoyance over why Bulbbul had not veiled herself in front of Sudip. One might see it as a cute little act of jealousy, but I think there have been enough instances for our eyes to open that jealousy, and the acts evoked from it are the founding stones of patriarchal barriers imposed on women.
On the other hand, there is a doctor, Sudip. He is a good man, somewhat understands Bulbbul, and has been taking care of her since her husband had broken her legs. The problem with the character of Sudip is that he is someone, who is unable to view Bulbbul for what she is, a woman of power, of brilliance. He considers her as someone ‘out of his league’, someone he can never ‘have’ and will end up getting hurt only.
Sudip here is giving Bulbbul enough respect, but not the way she should get it. He is seeing Bulbbul as a trophy, who is nice to watch from afar but cannot be kept on the shelf and is not worthy of his love. Love that runs on the norms set by patriarchy; love that does not let men see women as equals and only views them as either preachable mortals or as unattainable celestial bodies. But what the film does here makes us go soft with Sudip. It almost seems like a dream to be admired by a man to this extent that he will keep on admiring you from a distance. Again, this should not be the way of loving a woman that the film ends up glorifying.
The scenes I have particularly found interesting in the film are the scenes evolving around smoke as they have beautifully commented on love while appealing to the conditioned mind. There has always been something about women and smoke and the men lighting their cigarettes to show that they are ‘liberals’, that they are not like ‘the other men’ and are desperate to prove that they are not the active part of patriarchy. It is also the same here.
Satya, being jealous by another man Sudip, lights Bulbbul’s cigarette only to lecture her on how she should have behaved and whether her husband would take her back. The scene is so ironic that it hurts.
Given the nature of the relationship that Satya and Bulbbul had shared throughout the film, the irony hurts even more. Bulbbul, who thought she had found her freedom in a man like Satya, laughs out loud at his lecture, and with a cigarette in her lips, ends up saying, ‘you are all the same.’ The laughter mixed with the sigh hits home.
If we go back to the previous scene, we see Sudip and Bulbbul sharing a bidi. Now, there is again something about sharing a smoke with a woman, smoking on the counter. But the thing that catches the eye here is that it is in this scene that Sudip acknowledges Bulbbul being out of his league and justifies his self-made boundaries to keep his distance from her to not get hurt.
This is the scene where I understood that for a woman like Bulbbul, it is either Satya, who would light her cigarette and lecture on how she should behave; or it is Sudip, who would also light her smoke but will worship her as some kind of goddess. There is no equal ground for this woman. Either she has to be a symbol of a higher power and authority or she has to listen to lectures from the love of her life.
After love, let us come to the main theme of the film, justice, and revenge. The primary problem of the narrative here is that the film fails to rise above the set standards of revenge or justice. Bulbbul, killing the men who wrong women are fine (whether taking justice in one’s hand is okay or not is a topic of debate for later). But the point loses its value when she has to be bestowed with some sort of supernatural powers to attain justice. The problem even intensifies when Bulbbul specifically turns a Goddess from a Demon who would devour men.
This is where the entire fight of Bulbbul gets lost into a swirl of admiration for the Devi who serves justice and rescues the ones who cannot stand up for themselves. Being a voice of the voiceless or being a fighter for the ones who cannot fight is quite a good job, but if you have to be a Devi for that then where is the point? It seems that the fight Bulbbul is putting up is nothing until it gets validated by the men or society in general.
The scene where everything is set on fire by Satya and Sudip reveals to him that Bulbbul is the one behind all the killings, he emphasizes how Bulbbul is not a demon but a Goddess. Then Satya realizes Bulbbul’s worth and lets out a pretty half baked scream, that doesn’t even seem real.
The question that arises here is that why would what Bulbbul is should be a thing to ponder? Why would she have to be set on fire if she was a demon and why would the same act be regrettable if she is a Devi? Does the concept of justice change with the person committing it? This is a huge drawback of the film as it blatantly promotes the concept of a Devi being a higher entity than a demon and thus justifying issues of casteism.
If a woman has superpowers, she has superpowers; it is not essential to ascribe names to it. If you are doing something larger than life, something beyond the doings of mere mortals then it shouldn’t matter if you are a Devi or a demon. Those are essentially the projections of society on women that only serve to make the barriers of patriarchy stronger.
The film could have achieved a lot more if it had not given in to getting validation and following societal norms. The metaphor of Bulbbul’s legs getting backwards because of the beating and her consequent healing is a very powerful one. It beautifully shows that witches are the ones who have had it enough. But then that which is turned into a Devi who gets the admiration and sympathy of the society with a dash of awe.
The imagery of the burning forest is quite powerful. It shows in a frantic fervour that fire can both destroy and sustain women, who have the power to rise from ashes. Bulbbul jumps from a tree to the other, the devil turned Goddess, while the whole forest burns in front of her eyes. It is haunting and is something that would stay with me for a long time.
The ending seems a bit rushed, the epiphany of Satya comes quite out of nowhere. However, Bulbbul returning for her revenge on Indranil is something quite predictable and yet it somehow would make the audience happy.
The predictable storyline of the plot would not have been much of an issue if the theme of feminism had been dealt with in the right fashion. Bulbbul almost lures us to like God-like figures, who would fight patriarchy while being worshipped by the system. The flight of the protagonist is judged by the males of the society and her act only gets meaning when it is validated.
This blatant submission to the system is what makes Bulbbul quite a not feminist film. If you need male validation for your struggle and revenge, the point gets lost in it and you become a victim of patriarchy again.
However, no matter what the flaws are, Bulbbul has made quite an attempt to show the struggles women go through and their potential to rise from it. It can be or I might say should be watched once for the cinematography and the performances. The occasional moments of unadulterated female triumph would come as a bonus.