Bulbul Can Sing (India, 2018) [LIFF 2019]

Rima Das is a self-taught filmmaker from India’s Assam state who typically writes, shoots, and edits her own films. She often works with non-professional actors while her award-winning films have been shot in her home state where she details village life of youngsters in contemporary rural India. Bulbul Can Sing continues this trajectory as she sets a coming-of-age story in her hometown where three friends explore their identities but, when faced with the boundaries of their community’s strict social mores, face conflict.

Bulbul (Arnali Das) is teenager who lives with her mother, father and younger brother in Chaygaon, a rural town in Assam. Her closest friends are Bonny (Banita Thakuriya), whose mother runs a cafe, and Sumu (Manoranjan Das), a teenage boy who doesn’t conform to the traditional masculine behaviour as expected by their community. The relationship between the three is chain that keeps the film moving as their lives are sketched out through school and home life, the secrets they share and games they play and also the way they support each other as they try to self-actualize personalities while those around them try to mould their characters.

These three teens, on the verge of becoming adults, are experiencing the first sweet pangs of love and the bitterness of otherness. Bonny has a boyfriend and Sumu is bullied for being gay. Bulbul herself feels the glimmers of attraction for a guy who has fallen head over heels in love with her. The love lives of the girls is sweet and tender, all clumsy embraces and poetry, goofy smiles and whispered sweet nothings that adults watching the film will grin or wince at as they remember their own romantic fumbles. Suman’s ostracisation by others is heart-rending to see as he laments the way people mock him for being gay. He is mercilessly bullied but the girls provide a balm for him and the audience with their dedicated protection and loyalty. This gives the first half of the film a lovely sheen of friendship, and makes the tragedy that emerges in the second that much sadder.

The three live in a town which is definitely traditional as seen in how it is a place where age-old festivals hold sway, farming is the dominant way of life and the older generations sing songs about the gods and keep kids in check with supernatural tales and philosophies about love being spiritual. The kids lean away from this into their own likes and dislikes and, as they give in, slightly, to passion they find themselves at odds with the social mores and moral codes of their village. They remain blithely unaware of the world around them and the audience will have a sneaking suspicion of where things are going to head to as the moralising of those around them goes from being pretty insidious to violent. It first emerges from parents and teachers urging Bulbul to sing songs they want, to learn the things they recommend and act as an ideal young woman should until violence and shame becomes a factor in policing how people should behave as seen in a harrowing scene which splits the film in two and we are left with the messy aftermath.

The narrative itself is nothing new but the way it is filmed gives the story its impact. Das can be unsentimental in the way that she shoots scenes but has a way of catching poetic visuals that sweep audiences away in the emotions. The camera watches Bulbul’s sulky face as she listlessly goes about her schoolwork and she resists her father’s entreaties to sing and through these images we feel her uncertainty. Her face lights up in moments of friendship, when the kids play together and talk about love in a carefree manner, and it is easy to get wrapped up in the fun. These moments of boredom and sadness, love and loss create a patchwork of tones that colour adolescence but the visuals that really stand out are the long shots where characters stand out against a cloudscape and scenes where characters play in a river and in rainfall. They are piercingly beautiful and create a sense of time flowing and Bulbul floating along because she is often framed against these visuals all the way through to the end. She survives and gains vital life experience.

Bulbul and her friends are caught up in the vicissitudes of life but life carries on and as the film ends on an open note we understand that Bulbul has grown and will probably find her own voice and sing with a stronger voice after experiencing travails.

Bulbul Can Sing is showing at the London Indian Film Festival 2019 on June 25 and 26.

The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival 2019 celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on June 20 in London and continues until July 8 at cinemas across the UK. Watch the festival trailer here.