‘Bulbul Can Sing’ review: An unchained coming-of-age melody

At first glance Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing appears to be carrying forward from where her much celebrated Village Rockstars left. Like the former, it is rooted in the daily rhythms of rural Assam. Her camera is in no hurry, it pauses and lingers long on the landscape — the ponds, the trees, the leaves, the grass, the sunshine sparkling through the clouds, the modest village homes and schools — and also on the unadorned, pubescent faces of her central characters: the three thick-as-thieves friends, Bulbul (Arnali Das), Bonnie (Banita Thakuria) and Suman (Manoranjan Das). It only helps that, just like in Village Rockstars, to add to the rootedness, all the main roles have been played by non-professional actors, save Pakija Begum as Bonnie’s mother.

Through the course of the film, these three adolescents go through the good, the bad and the ugly experiences to be able to find a new perspective on life and see the world without blinkers on. A trial by fire that eventually helps Bulbul find herself and her voice.

Bulbul Can Sing (Assamese)

  • Director: Rima Das
  • Starring: Arnali Das, Manoranjan Das, Banita Thakuria,Manabendra Das, Pakija Begumpakija
  • Run time: 95 minutes
  • Storyline: Three adolescent friends go through the good, the bad and the ugly experiences to be able to find a new perspective on life and see the world without blinkers on

The film is about the everydayness of their shared moments: whether at home, in school or in the fields. It’s about a rare intimate bond that transcends the man-woman divide. Whether it’s a budding romance, the secret date, petty jealousy or Bulbul’s shyness that comes in the way of her singing — the problems don’t appear to be insurmountable or seem threatening enough to rock their idyll.

Yet these are just pointers to a tragedy that looms ahead. The carefreeness begins to evaporate slowly as Das’ vision gets darker. Her story-telling, however, remains gentle, quiet, restrained, graceful and mild. Which actually ends up making her take on the themes of feminism, gender, sexual identity and moral policing even more hard-hitting.

In embracing the darkness, Das also gives a more defined structure to the film, unlike the more free-flowing Village Rockstars. There is a gradual build up of the plot with portents of doom and intimations of troubles lurking around. A father who can’t fend for himself, would need the wife or daughter to even find his missing shirt. A teacher who is crosses the limit with his young pupil in his own seemingly protective way. There are the expectations from Bulbul of being modest and calm like all women are meant to be and the battles she has to fight on behalf Suman, who is bullied as “ladies” for not living up to the ideals of masculinity. Patriarchy is stacked against everybody even as Das, just like in Village Rockstars, tries to subvert the gendered norms and expectations.

Finally, despite the darkness, Das doesn’t give up entirely on hope either. Even the worst of moments can spark discussions, offer possibilities of change, even as life moves on. And the key to it, in the world of Das, quite fittingly lies in the hands of the women, or men who have embraced their feminine side.


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