Tripti Dimri as Bulbbul. (photo provided)

MUMBAI — Red, pink, yellow—no, I am not enumerating colors to a pre-primary kid but just the hues the frames of “Bulbbul” overtly take up, as per director Anvita Dutt (writer and lyricist)’s preferences. Note the symbolism: red for blood, yellow for fire, and pink, presumably for the female gender. All three are important here.

The simple folklore kind of story of gender abuse alternates between bright daytime takes and such “artistic” flourishes to adorn a saga of child marriage, sexual abuse, nasty secrets of feudal mansions and, finally, a demon-witch (that’s how the subtitles refer to a mysterious force in the forest that kills men). Predictable, and confused in which route to take—mainstream, mid-stream or art-oriented—it mixes the genres in the best traditions of Anushka Sharma’s critically acclaimed productions “NH10,” “Phillauri” and “Pari.”

Needless to grouse, all these gambits are thinly-disguised reworks of formulaic films, like “NH10” went towards the “Pratighaat” genre. Sharma’s recent web series “Paatal Lok” put me off with its gratuitous and explicit violence as seen in the trailer, and when a colleague told me that he was sickened by many scenes, like a child’s skull being split open, I decided that watching such typically depraved stuff on the web was not needed. In that sense, this film is part-redemption, for whatever form it adopts, it is at heart an inoffensive tale of how a woman takes on men who indulge in gender (not just sexual) abuse.

We get a hint of the “supernatural” element to come when in 1881 in the Bengal Presidency, little Bulbul (Ruchi Mahajan) is married off to Indranil (Rahul Bose), the normal brother among twins, the other being the younger, mentally compromised Mahendra, who has been married to Binodini (Paoli Dam). Thus, the young Bulbul becomes the elder “bahu” (daughter-in-law) in the family.

Bulbul, while traveling to her future home as a child bride, had befriended Satya (Varun Buddhadev), the child brother of the twins, and he regales her with a scary tale of a demon-woman who can fly across trees, has reversed feet and kills men. Bulbul is fascinated but not scared. As she grows up, Satya becomes a close friend, as everyone else is much older. In a telling sequence, Bulbul asks why married girls have to wear a toe-ring, and she is told that it is to “control” girls and women. Bulbul is least bothered.

The scene shifts to 20 years later when Bulbul is a cheerful and spirited young woman (Tripti Dimri) dressed traditionally in a colorful way as befits the traditional mores. Her ongoing friendship with Satya (Avinash Tiwary) irks her husband and he sends him abroad to learn law. This makes Bulbul miserable.

By the time Satya returns five years later, Mahendra has been mysteriously and brutally killed and his widow Binodini is in white, with hair shaved. Indranil has left the mansion for unexplained reasons. Bulbul and Satya revive their easy camaraderie, but Satya suspects that she has something going with Dr. Sudip (Parambharat Chattopadhyaya), who visits her frequently.

The village is affected with mysterious murders even in the forest and the villagers are sure that is a demon-woman. Satya decides to get to the truth, as he suspects that Dr. Sudip is the culprit as he lives near the edge of the forest and there is no supernatural force. But the doctor’s innocence is proved in a—literally—fiery way.  And Satya’s childhood tale comes true.

As a thriller, “Bulbbul” works despite the placid pace in a narrative of about 90 minutes. But as with all such films of confused sensibilities, the climax sees no real gratification for either the “good” characters or the audience. This could have been worked upon.

A prolonged and depraved rape sequence, a brutal sequence of punishment meted out to a possibly disloyal wife even as the same husband philanders with his sister-in-law—all these sequences, while not being congenial or briskly shown attempts to show the chauvinistic and tyrannical men of that era who looked on women as slaves or even sex slaves, do pave the way to justify the murders being shown, which include those of two men not connected with the feudal clan.

Tripti Dimri is bright, effortless, sparkling. She raises the bar of the film almost single-handedly as Bulbul. Her tinkling laugh, effusive brightness and audacity make Bulbul come alive beautifully. Avinash Tiwary as Satya has nothing much to do but is alright. The children who enact their childhoods, however, are superb.

The dependable Parambhrata is excellent in his brief role as Dr. Sudip. Paoli Dam decides to show talent instead of too much skin and is effective as Binodini. Rahul Bose is very good as the husband as well as the retarded brother-in-law of Bulbul. The cinematography by Siddharth Diwan creates the right atmosphere in those frames where there are no monochromes as mentioned above, but it is the production design by Meenal Agarwal that stands out.

Amit Trivedi’s background score impresses with it minimalism. And for a first-timer, director Dutt isn’t bad, quite the contrary in fact. Her scripting could have been better, as described above, but she has at least added the first respectable production to Sharma’s banner.

Rating: ***1/2

Clean Slate Films

Produced by: Anushka Sharma & Karnesh Sharma

Written and directed by: Anvita Dutt

Music: Amit Trivedi

Starring: Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Rahul Bose, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Paoli Dam, Varun Buddhadev, Sameer Deshpande, Veera Kapur, Ruchi Mahajan & others

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