In the National Film Award-winning Village Rockstars (2017), Assamese director Rima Das explored the mind of a 10-year-old girl from a village who yearns to own a guitar. This year, Das returns with another story of a girl from rural Assam.

Bulbul Can Sing is the coming-of-age story of a teenager (Arnali Das) who navigates love, friendship and social norms. Also starring Manoranjoan Das, Manabendra Das, Bonita Thakuriya and Pakija Begam, the Assamese-language production was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in the India Gold competition section.

Like her previous film, Bulbul Can Sing has been edited, shot, produced and designed by Das. Her third feature (she made her debut with Man with the Binoculars: Antardrishti in 2016), Bulbul Can Sing was a complex film to tackle, the director told during the festival.

“When you are there with teenagers, already things are challenging,” Das said. “Their mood is different. It is also an age where they are introduced to love, curiosity and maturity. Their physical appearances also change. How they feel about it and how the society reacts to that had to be depicted. So the subject itself is complicated.”

Through the story of Bulbul and her two friends (Thakuriya and Das), the film comments on sexual identities, bullying and moral policing. Das, who had earlier intended to make a teenage love story, decided to explore friendships.

“I gradually realised that the friendship in that age is so beautiful,” Das said. “I tried to understand what is changing now. We are living in a digital world now. Friendships are maintained over the internet. But I found that even then, certain things do not change. I then tried to see the bigger picture. Why there is shame? How different people think in a different way? These are some of the questions I have tried to address with this film.”

Bulbul Can Sing. Courtesy Flying River Films.

While Village Rockstars was shot over four years, Bulbul Can Sing was completed in six months and is also more experimental, the director said. “I wanted the film to be subtle and impactful,” Das explained. “I edited the film also very differently, where each frame takes a different turn. When you experiment with something, you do not follow rules and the craft is different and challenging. It might or might not work.”

The positive reception to Village Rockstars, which was last month selected as India’s official entry for the 2019 Oscars after a successful run in international festivals, gave Das the courage to tackle deeper subjects. “That gave me the motivation to take up a challenge,” she said. “There are many layers to the film. With the ending also I took a risk. Village Rockstars gave me the confidence to do things differently.”

Preparations to promote Village Rockstars for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars are underway. The Assam government has sanctioned Rs one crore for the film’s Oscar campaign.

“It is a very unknown thing for me because this is my first time [promotions of this scale],” she said. “But fortunately the last three years I have been travelling. So I know a couple of genuine people who have been helping me out. We have also hired a publicist. The Assam government has granted me one crore for the film. A few more people have contributed in an individual way. We are still looking for more funds, but we have started our journey.”

Village Rockstars (2017).