In India’s rural province of Assam, Bulbul (Arnali Das) lies forehead to forehead with her mother in bed. ‘Girls should be modest. Girls should behave well’, her mother instructs her daughter, stroking her hair. But when lingering looks and love poems are shared across the school playground in secret, Bulbul ignores, then abandons, her mother’s orders. What follows is a tale of forbidden first love, teenage rebellion and fierce friendship.

Bulbul Can Sing tells the story of three friends: Bulbul, Bonny and Suman. Nature is the playground for these young teenagers. Director Rima Das creates a palpable sense of childhood innocence and joy. She follows her characters marauding through fields, skimming rocks, scrambling up trees and wading through muggy brown waters without a thought for their sodden school uniforms.

The freedom that they find in the countryside, however, evaporates on their return to the village. Suman’s ambiguous sexuality is pounced on. He is as ferociously ridiculed by school bullies as he is defended by his two friends. The bodies and behaviour of Bulbul and Bonny are corseted by patriarchal pressure. Orders from elders to ‘Pull down your frock’ or ‘Tie up your hair’ are the verbal warnings of a sexist system that threatens to destroy anyone who disobeys it.

Bulbul’s father sports his prize-winning vocals with pride. He dreams his daughter will become a singer like him. Bulbul, however, is more concerned with boys. Electric currents of attraction crackle between Bonny, Bulbul and their boyfriends. In one tender scene, Bulbul and her boyfriend lie inches apart in long grass. They do not kiss, but barely touching, confess their eternal love for one another. Here, Das accurately depicts the fizzing excitement, childhood innocence and teenage awkwardness of first love.

Das’ use of bold colour paints a society that, at surface level, appears beautiful. Saturated pink hues of houses, the golden, candlelit scenes of Diwali and the red, green and orange Sari’s that swirl as the schoolgirls dance are all visually stunning scenes. But behind all this colour, all this life, is a hinterland of darkness. Das creates a portrait of a society riven by intergenerational difference. Parents and teachers act as mouthpieces for archaic societal norms. Bulbul can sing, but she is a caged bird.