Oh, Rima Das! You charmed me with your previous film, Village Rockstars. But with your latest film, Bulbul Can Sing, I never expected that you would take me on a roller coaster of emotions, making my heart full and happy, making it ache with sadness, and, finally, breaking it into a million little shards.
Even more surprising, Bulbul (Amali Das) and her friends Bonnie (Bonita Thakuriya) and Suman (Manoranjoan Das) took me right back to my own adolescence in southwestern Ontario, a world so far removed from the Assamese village the film is set in that you would think I would have nothing in common with these three kids who are in that challenging space that straddles childhood and adulthood. At one moment, they’re climbing trees and picking flowers, the next, taking their first steps (in the case of both Bulbul and Bonnie) into a relationship, all while trying to navigate the expectations of the community they live in.
For Bulbul, those expectations include her father’s dream that she will become a folk singer like himself, and he tells anyone who will listen that Bulbul is a good singer. Perhaps – like her namesake, the nightingale — she is, but the Bulbul we see is clearly uncomfortable singing in public, her voice quiet, thin and reedy. Expectations of the larger community come in many forms: her friend Suman (who has a hard time himself with how others view him, painfully aware that he is “different” and teased mercilessly by both boys and men in the village) tells her to tie up her hair so she won’t be a victim of a female ghost; her mother admonishes her to pull down her frock, asking that painful question, “What will others think?”
Others are only too willing to express what they think, particularly when more serious events unfold, but the strength of Rima Das’s work lies in the fact that at no moment does any of this feel contrived or preachy. This is how this community is. It has expectations of others in the community. It has clearly defined expectations of how men and women (and boys and girls) should behave, and when they do not, there are clearly defined ways for dealing with things.
Or are there? When Bulbul and Bonnie are discovered with boyfriends, the four adolescents are first beaten and shamed, and then the school they attend must make a decision about their future. There is a debate about how they should be dealt with – and though most of that debate turns around the idea of how to restore the honour of the school, there is a divide between those who would want to see the teens punished, and those who feel that the only way forward is to expel the offending students.
Even the larger community enters into a debate about the nature of love in the modern world and how it impacts their village.
As for me, I remember all too well the constraints placed on me by that one phrase: “What will others think?” Four little words that manage to tie you up in knots and weigh you down at the same time, at exactly the moment in your life when you should be free to figure out who you are, what you think, how you fit into the larger world, when you should be finding your own voice, and your own way of singing. Rima Das manages to connect worlds and lives that are, on the surface, so different and disparate, but which have more in common than we might realize. And she does it in a way that is graceful, in the truest sense of that word: Bulbul Can Sing is a film full of grace. Bulbul faces joys and sorrows at such a tender age, but the film left me with the feeling that no matter what others think, she will truly find her voice.
Bulbul Can Sing screens at the London Indian Film Festival on June 25th and 26th. The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on 20th June 2019 in London continues until 8th July 2019, at cinemas across the UK. For more on the festival, please visit: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/