Rima Das’s follow-up to her acclaimed Village Rockstars is set once again amidst the emerald-hued beauty of rural Assam, where nature casts a spell that humans can be counted on to shatter.
Bulbul Can Sing fuses ethnographic detail into a coming-of-age tale of three teenagers. Bonny (Banita Thakuriya) has a boyfriend, and Suman (Manoranjan Das) is still learning who he actually is. Bulbul (Arnali Das) is a bit like the leaf that floats by in the village stream – she is heading someplace, but she doesn’t quite know where yet. Bulbul has unwaxed arms and legs, pubertal pimples and a tinny voice that cannot match Bonny’s more sonorous delivery, but she is beautiful enough to attract attention, both welcome and unwelcome.
Bulbul’s schoolmate is smitten, and woos her with longing looks and romantic poetry. Everyday life has an easy grace and rhythm for the endearing adolescents. Festivals come and go, the weather alters the colour of the skies, and a trip to a photography studio has the enchantment of a holiday in Disneyland.
The fast-changing teenagers might swear by eternal love, but they are stepped so deep in the moment and the beauty of their surroundings that they are unprepared for the cruel ways in which conventional morality catches up with them. “Girls should be modest. Girls should behave well. You should be calm”: the warnings of Bulbul’s mother assume darker shades as the 95-minute movie meanders towards a denouement that was foreshadowed but ignored.
The Assamese-language production was completed in 2018, and is being released through PVR Cinemas’ Vkaao movie-on-demand platform and Book My Show. The title derives from Bulbul’s quest to master her singing voice. She is egged on by her singer father, but freezes when asked to perform at school for an upcoming function. Bulbul’s moment is some time away, and will come at a hefty price.
Suman too has hurdles to overcome. He is dismissed as effete by his cruel classmates because he is sensitive and prefers female company. Although Suman’s evolution is somewhat under-serviced by a plot that revolves around Bulbul’s trials, his friendship with her is the movie’s most fulfilling and meaningful relationship.
Like Village Rockstars, Bulbul Can Sing is a virtual one-woman show. Rima Das has directed, written, edited, shot and produced the film, and she also has credits for costume, casting and production design. Unlike Village Rockstars, however, Das is working with a more layered plot. There is no shortage of visual poetry or richly observed local detail, and Das’s ability to effortlessly capture the rhythms of pastoral life is never in doubt. However, there is also a great deal that goes unaddressed in a movie that sets itself up as a commentary on the clash between the inner workings of its principal characters and the demands of the outside world.
Some of the balancing between purely observational cinema and a plot-driven narrative is ungainly, and a few of the characters fall by the wayside. Despite highly assured performances by the cast – Arnali Das and Manoranjan Das are particularly impressive – the movie totters when it attempts to reconcile its bucolic surroundings with the harshness visited upon its characters. The skies change colour and the fields hum and sigh as Bulbul approaches womanhood, taking some of the edge off her hard-earned lessons.