Hindi lyricist and screenwriter Anvita Dutt’s debut feature Bulbbul is set in 19th-century Bengal, in a world of aristocrats and spirits. The film traces the strange goings-on around the mansion where Bulbbul lives with her much older husband Indranil (Rahul Bose). A series of killings is blamed on a witch, and is investigated by Bulbbul’s relative Satya (Avinash Tiwary).
Also involved are Bulbbul’s sister-in-law Binodini (Paoli Dam), described as “shrewd and conniving” by Dutt, and the local doctor Sudip (Parambrata Chatterjee), with whom Bulbbul shares a “friendship of equals”. The Netflix original film will be out on June 24.
Bulbbul was inspired by a combination of Dutt’s interests, which include Indian folk tales, fantasy fiction, and all things Bengal. Describing herself as a “reader more than a watcher”, Dutt grew up reading the works of fantasy writer Neil Gailman and science-fiction author Ursula K Le Guin. She also consumed Indian folk stories, including the Bengali collection Thakurmar Jhuli, as well as the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
“Bulbbul is about a vulnerable young girl standing up for justice, becoming stronger, and finding her centre in the world, so I could even set it up on another planet,” Dutt told Scroll.in. “I chose Bengal because I love the combination of the fantasy and the literary in their literature. Every time I go to Calcutta, I feel everything is a frame of a movie, with a story unfolding in it. There’s something eerie and sublime, and sometimes something so beautiful can also be frightening.”
Bulbbul reunites a bunch of collaborators. Dutt has previously written Phillauri (2017) for Bulbbul producers Anushka Sharma and Karnesh SSharma. Dimri and Tiwary played doomed lovers in Laila Majnu (2018). Bulbbul marks the tenth film in which Dam and Chattopadhyay feature together. Composer Amit Trivedi and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan worked on Queen (2014), for which Dutt wrote the dialogue and lyrics.
Bulbbul was shot in and around the Bawali Rajbari, a mansion located in the Nodakhali village, about 30 kilometres away from Kolkata. “What I liked about the place was that besides being big and beautiful, it has only one entrance gate, which fit with my vision for the story,” Dutt said. The mansion is popular with tourists and has been featured prominently in Bengali productions, including Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali (2004).
Tagore’s literature, Dutt said, was a strong influence on Bulbbul’s character . The premise of a young Bengali woman belonging to a zamindari family in British India and finding companionship in a male family member has similarities with Tagore’s novella Nashtanirh, adapted by Satyajit Ray as Charulata in 1964, as well as the bard’s relationship with his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi.
“I love Tagore’s women,” Dutt said. “What’s interesting about his world is that while Bengal is changing outside, the women in the house are fragile, hopeless, and yet sensible.”
The 48-year-old filmmaker, who has “once upon a time” tattooed on her right hand, didn’t plan for her directorial debut to be a fantasy, but it was meant to happen, given her literary tastes. Her previous screenplays Shaandaar (2015) and Phillauri too have elements of the unreal.
“I was a shy and quiet kid and I drowned myself in reading,” Dutt recalled. “I began writing at the age of 11, and when I was 15, a teacher, Mrs Raghubir, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I want to be a chef. She asked, but do you know you are a writer? I said, but I only write for myself, everyone does that. She said, no, everyone doesn’t do that. I look forward to your answers because your answers are stories. You can either be in advertising or journalism.”
Dutt spent 14 years as an advertising copywriter. Her work led to a chance meeting with Yash Raj Films chief Aditya Chopra. A career in writing Bollywood films and lyrics began with Neal ‘n’ Nikki in 2005.
Among the composers Dutt has frequently collaborated with are Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, and Amit Trivedi. Kinaare from Queen is her favourite among the songs she has written.
Her affinity towards music and musicians extends towards her writing process. Dutt wrote Phillauri listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and Coldplay’s songs inspired Queen. Bulbbul was written while listening to Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of Raga Puriya on loop.
“Writing lyrics and screenplays are similar in the sense I am playing with words in both cases,” Dutt explained. “With lyrics, there are constraints, as I have to write melodies. The process is technical, so every time I successfully finish writing a song, I am delighted. Writing scripts is a more strenuous process, taking up months, and it helps if you are a reader.”