Caution: spoilers ahead.
Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul is bursting with striking visuals. A horse-drawn cart hurtles through a flaming orange-hued forest; a woman reclines on a settee, the sun on her face and a mysterious smile on her lips; a mansion is bathed in shades of teal and crimson. Everywhere you look, there is something beautiful to catch the eye – and it is there for a reason.
Optics matter in Dutt’s retelling of witchcraft folklore and are inseparable from the writer-director’s leaps of imagination. The premise of the retro-Gothic Bulbbul plays with what we think we know about women in aristocratic families in nineteenth-century Bengal as well as stories of blood-sucking female demons.
Dutt’s screenplay links a woman married to a much older man with a chudail who is attacking the men in her village. Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) is encouraged to stay indoors and within the invisible lines drawn around her. The chudail, on the other hand, moves around at will in the forest beyond Bulbbul’s mansion.
Motifs scattered through the narrative provide clues to Bulbbul’s fate. The world in which restrictions make way for a sort of liberation is a carefully constructed one – a mixture of period detail and artfully designed fantasy that give expression to the movie’s themes of feminist subversion and contemporary reinvention. The production design is by Meenal Agarwal and the costumes are by Veera Kapur Ee.
Bulbbul was filmed over 33 days in locations near Mumbai and Kolkata. The distinctive cinematography is by Siddharth Diwan. The Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute of India-trained talent’s credits include the unreleased Peddlers, Titli, Trapped and Bhavesh Joshi Superhero – all movies set in cities and dealing with an identifiable present.
Diwan, who shot wildlife films before earning his degree and subsequently lensed several debut features, has had his fair share of challenges. But the hyper-real and heightened universe of Bulbbul was new – and exciting – for the 34-year-old director of photography, he told Scroll.in.
Excerpts from the interview.
Imagining the world of ‘Bulbbul’
I have never worked on anything like this before. I was very much on the edge while saying yes to the film. It was like walking a tightrope – it could have been tacky. I had always done contemporary stuff, very urban stories. But when you put yourself in these unknown waters, that pushes you to do something.
For the first month, we were just talking about the script. My beginning with Anvita was to really understand what this film is about, what is it trying to say, what is its central philosophy.
Anvita has a lot of very good taste in art. Raja Ravi Varma was one thing she had put in from the beginning, and I had a hangover of Caravaggio. When I started prepping, I went to my favourite art movements, which are Expressionism and Surrealism.
The script was such – it could not be treated as how the characters saw things. Rather, I needed to treat it like how the characters felt. I wanted to not root it in reality. There was no pressure to be factually right. It was based on folklore and within a period, so it had certain elements that you would want to put in, like fire sources and a horse and carriage. But I wasn’t pressurised by that. I knew I could take that the leap and get a bit expressive with the images.
I started visiting early German Expressionist and experimental films and photographers like Man Ray. The biggest breakthrough was the photographer Raja Deen Dayal. I saw a lot of politics in his images, the way he photographed men versus women. I remember this one photograph. There is this prince sprawled in this very comfortable way, making contact with the lens. The men had the flamboyance of looking at the camera, while the women didn’t even make eye contact. The compositions were very formal and structured, and you could see in their eyes and faces that there was a story behind them.
All of that gave us ideas to treat Bulbbul. The past would be a bit fluid and shaky. The camera would be innocent and erratic, while in the present, Bulbbul would be mature and more centrally framed. The movements would be more calculated.
We knew that in terms of colour, we wanted to be more expressive. We wanted a difference in the two timelines. There also had to be some meaning behind it. The green-blue was associated with Bulbbul’s past because her childhood home was of that colour. I also felt a kind of innocence in that colour. The red was like her becoming the goddess, in a sense. It wasn’t in the script, but came later on as we were having these discussions.
It also didn’t have to be art for the sake of art – it had to be a part of the storytelling. The advantage of being with Anvita is that because she is also a writer, she will get excited about something and find a way to weave it into the story.
The forest is on fire
The forest sequences were all shot on location. We found a patch of a mango grove on the outskirts of Bombay. We wanted to create a silhouettey feel, and so we smoked up the forest and lit it in that colour. Again, the idea was to be expressive with the images. There was also a logic to it, of course, because there is a red blood moon.
There were certain rules we made for ourselves – the red moonlight and the present timeline would be extremely stable. Bulbbul has achieved that level, she has become the goddess. One of the biggest lighting references was also Satyajit Ray’s poster for his film Devi, which is half black and half white. I started lighting Bulbbul in half light. We also framed her very central. The camera would only move on a dolly or a jib. She resonates that power and stability and control of things around her.
For the past, we kept it unsure – the camera was on Steadicam or handheld. We wanted the sense of a shifting perspective. I started framing [the younger] Bulbbul more towards the edge of the frame. She is unsure, she is coming into this new house where she doesn’t associate with anybody.
The grass that you see in the film are called kaash phool, it is again associated with Durga. The things you associate with the goddess – the bird and flower motifs, the kaash phool – are sometimes used in a surreal way too.
It all started with ‘Peddlers’
I had been working for seven years before I went to film school. I joined in 2007 and graduated in 2011. Peddlers happened when I was in my third year. It had an altogether different energy. There was another level of passion and commitment involved. Guneet [Monga], who had produced it, and Prerna [Saigal], who edited it, we have all been friends since our college days at the Madhu Bala Institute of Communication and Electronic Media in Delhi.
Peddlers was also a nightmare – I had to let go of everything I learnt at the institute. There was zero money, and I had nothing. One day, I would be sent a new camera and a new set of lenses. Being naive or too driven, I told myself, I am still going to tell the story and not let myself be stopped by these things. In the script, it may have been written that you needed a dog, but now you were given a cat and you had to figure out how to make a scene out it.
I told Vasan that after this film, either my career is going to end and people are going to say this is the shittiest thing they have seen, or they will call me for workshops and lectures. It had to be that extreme.
I have that feeling with every film I do. I always put myself in a situation where it is not comfortable. I like that – it is the only way you can create something that makes you feel something. The DP [director of photography] has to be the protector of the whole image and the film. Anvita used to jokingly call me the “guardian of the image”.
In Titli, one of the scenes I struggled to light was the scene where Titli tells his father, “Suar aap ho” (The real monster is you). There is also the scene where Titli comes with a hammer to break his wife’s hand.
One thing about working with Kanu [Titli’s director Kanu Behl] is that you start going really deep into the world of the film. I remember feeling the characters’ feelings and being really down because the scenes were such. We were all nervous and constantly snapping at each other. That scene made us feel so ugly [about] how far people could go to achieve their selfish agendas.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero for me was a technical nightmare. Anything I did in Bhavesh was for the first time in my life. I had never used those lights, I had never got any kind of gear, I had never shot action sequences. I was always on the edge about how I was going to achieve it. I was so nervous I used to call up a lot of senior DPs for advice.
After Bhavesh, I thought, this is the maximum number of night sequences in a film. And then came Bulbbul. Night shooting is a pain, you have to light up and light every angle. The red filter we were using also cuts a lot of light. The jungle sequences were very difficult. It was such a curated, calculated world – there were all these strong colours and you had to balance them out. It is among the most difficult films I have shot.
(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)