Student Critic Rory Doherty reviews
Bulbul Can Sing
(Rimas Das, India, 2018)
A ghost story opens Bulbul Can Sing. A trio of rural Indian teenagers are constructing a swing, and Bulbul’s friend Suman (Manoranjoan Das) tells her that, because her hair is too long, she will be hunted by vengeful spirits. This begins a series of moralistic lessons that are engrained into the Assamese environment, curtailing and undermining the characters' expressive freedoms.
In a small village in southern India, Bulbul (Arnali Das) is confronted by negative, deprecating figures in an important stage of growing up. Any scenes that directly feature song are packed with scrutinising, judging eyes. Attempts to involve older generations are met with resistance; when a mother is invited to eat with her daughter Bonnie (Bonita Thakuriya), she acts confused, wanting to keep her distance. The film’s title is reacting against this oppressive atmosphere, validating Bulbul from a distanced, objective stance. Director Rima Das lets the camera linger on groups and flowing conversations, not intervening as her young characters submit to the established conventions of their community.
The main three have a vibrant chemistry and Das colours a natural, detailed friendship. When group photographs are taken, they light up with joy and affection – which are made bittersweet when we see the finished product. They have been photo-shopped onto recognisable landmarks, exemplifying their wish to be removed from their current environment.
When discomfort and violence gradually creep into frame, we once again take the role of bystander, unable to prevent or resist the damage inflicted on the characters. The script’s structure binds these underplayed events together, with each one rebounding from the last, perpetuating trauma. The realistic friendships collapse and turn on each other as they blame themselves, rarely questioning the societal values that have made it impossible for them to escape.
And yet the film struggles to remain arresting throughout. The languid, directionless scenes lack narrative drive and while the absence of agency in the characters is central to the film’s intent, it results in an increasingly unengaging watch. By the time the upsetting scenes steer the film towards dramatic conflict, they feels out of place – with one tragedy resulting in the most interesting character feeling almost expendable. A realisation from Bulbul’s authority figures feels forced and undeserved, and while it may be satisfying to a viewer frustrated at the constrictions imposed on her, some richer development beforehand is required.