The title of Rima Das’ third feature film, Bulbul Can Sing, acquires it implied significance when the protagonist (Arnali Das) hums a tune to herself as clouds drop beads of water. Bulbul has a look of despair because of the inherent societal stratagems, yet her spirit is undaunted. Balancing the tumultuous phase between innocence and maturity, she has to negotiate her spirited life that resonates so close to the earth — the rains, the fields of tall grass and the rice paddies. The rules governing the social norms are strictly conservative; a bitter reality which the protagonist learns throughout the film.
The synopsis of Bulbul Can Sing can be summed up as a luminous tale about a teenage girl, in a rural setting of Assam, who falls in love while she is on the verge of discovering her adolescence along with her fellow mates. When a tragedy strikes, it unsettles the insouciant equilibrium of Bulbul’s life.
Bulbul Can Sing uses the locale of rural Assam to present a realistic milieu, one that lacks all of the narrative cushions and hand-holding that viewers have come to expect. The film emphasizes ordinary and casual life, punctuated by the apparent simplicity of the imagery as everyday moments are captured. The meanings of these scenes accrue slowly, gradually and cumulatively with key moments that will likely be appreciated by viewers after the fact. This fluid naturalism is greatly helped by a local, non-professional cast, as the chemistry between the actors seems effortless, thereby making their connection feel so palpable.
Das’ direction examines one’s reluctance to imagine the future in any detail during childhood. She highlights the transformative power of nature, the way it allows one’s true self to shine through and thus inspires the pursuit of hidden passions. As a result, the viewer may feel like a part of Bulbul Can Sing’s intoxicating atmosphere, full of raw and immediate energy from the start. Das captures the gawky neediness of adolescence with exuberant flights of intellectual, emotional and sexual self-discovery.
However, Bulbul Can Sing also portrays a perpetual atmosphere of fear, misinformation, communalization, intimidation, falsehood and manipulation via socio-political events invented through an incident of mob-enforced morality. Through this particular scene, audiences worldwide should get an understanding of the present status of Indian culture that has almost become like a commodity, one that’s manipulated for self-serving reasons. To succeed in inculcating fear by this mode has been, so far, the most successful project of the current regime, both socially and politically, and it’s similar to the vitriolic situation the characters in Bulbul Can Sing have to confront.
Ultimately, Bulbul Can Sing presents a string of moments that take place in a perpetually vanishing present. By following the course of Bulbul’s journey, the audience may experience a story that’s lasting and meaningful.
Dipankar Sarkar (@dipankarftii) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.