The last awards celebration Anvita Dutt remembers attending was the Golden Kela Awards, a satirical ceremony that hands out trophies to the worst of Hindi cinema.
Dutt won it for the worst lyrics. She had written the words for Ishq Wala Love, a hit track from Karan Johar’s Student of the Year that marked the debut of Alia Bhatt and two others. Dutt was writing dialogue, screenplay and lyrics much before SOTY premiered, though. If she wrote Ishq Wala Love, which has been generously parodied, she’s also the writer behind London Thumakda and Kinare, Meherban and Khuda Jaane.
Her first screenplay credit was YRF’s Neil ‘n’ Nikki, which she followed up with writing dialogues for films as varied as Bachna Ae Haseeno, Kambakkht Ishq, Dostana and Queen, Shaandaar, Phillauri and Pari, all the while nurturing and tinkering with the story of Bulbbul that had stayed with her but never found an outlet.
She had mentioned the idea to Karnesh Sharma, the producer brother of Anushka Sharma, when she was writing the dialogues for Patiala House, which featured Anushka Sharma in the lead role. Years later, Sharma circled back and the project finally found a home on Netflix, free from the censorship that it might have otherwise faced.
At her Mumbai home, Dutt, who I met over a Zoom call monitored by not one, but two Netflix execs, a poster of Bimal Roy’s Bandini hangs in the background.
“It’s from the original canvass,” Dutt proudly beams. I tell her I watched Madhumatti, another Bimal Roy classic, the night before. She talks about how his images and directorial have shaped her aesthetic. “We still don’t come close.” Seriously, we don’t.
After a momentary deviation to the 1950s, we travel further back in time, to early nineteenth century Bengal where Bulbbul is set and talk about the film’s big triumphs and little failings. Edited excerpts:
What’s the most rewarding feedback you’ve received ever since Bulbbul dropped on Netflix?
Young boys reaching out and talking about their mothers. Many said that they didn’t think of themselves like this. In their heads, they thought they were Sudip, but realised they were closer to Satya. To me, that shift of awareness is powerful. Many women wrote it to say that it resonates with their experience. Everybody talks about how the film looks but to me that’s just hygiene. I’m an aesthete. I speak that language. Bulbbul isn’t just a sweet little fable but something that is a product of my pain and angst and inner turmoil. I hope that has come through because I’ve wrapped it up in a palatable grandma-tale-format to drive home a broader point of oppression.
The reference to Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and by extension, to Tagore’s Noshtonir are pretty evident. The character names, Bandini and Mahinder, are also the names of characters in Chokher Bali, another Tagore story. What was the process of weaving these into your narrative like?
I have always been drawn to Tagore. I’ve felt devastated after reading his work, especially Noshtonir, which, over the years, has subliminally become a part of me. When you hold a butterfly and let it go, its texture still lingers on your fingers. That’s how I feel about the work of Tagore. He understood the female gaze.
When I was writing a story set in this period, his influence was bound to be there. It’s almost as if I found an outlet for something I had always known and felt. Of course, I cannot come close to what both Tagore or Ray managed to achieve.
The swing scene that you talk about was originally supposed to be in a gazebo near a lake in Kolkata. But a storm came and we couldn’t shoot. I didn’t want to do it on a set. Once when we were on a recce, looking for a forest, I saw a mango tree perched right at the edge. I looked at Meenal (production designer, Meenal Agarwal) and Dewan (cinematographer Sidharth Diwan) and they immediately knew what my look said.
The swing, too, came in accidentally. It wasn’t planned. It was after the first cut was out and a friend saw and went, oh, Charulata, that the resemblance hit me. When you absorb stories, you end up recreating them without even knowing it. From Ursula Le Guin to Stephen King to Neil Gaiman, these are writers whose work I’ve internalised and whose references might keep cropping up. After all, you are what you read.
Can you talk about why you decided to have that prolonged scene of violence and the subsequent rape? Some say it’s graphic but actually it isn’t. You choose to foreground the consequence of the act: her pain, her helplessness instead of the act itself.
To write it was very difficult. And then to shoot it with a clinical detachment, sit and do the shot breakdown even more so. Why was it written? Because I wanted to take my character through the extremes of male violence. To break her down completely before I equip her to rise again. Why was it kept the way it is? For the same reason that you had noted in your review. I don’t want to show what is being done. No. I want to show what it’s doing to her. I want you to feel what she’s feeling and like you wrote, not cut away from it to something that dilutes her pain. In both those scenes, you see something breaking inside her. There’s the physical part of it. And then there’s the spirit that’s destroyed.
It feels endless and inspires acute discomfort, like it’s meant to.
Absolutely. When such kind of violence is inflicted on you, that’s the effect of it. When someone hurts you that way, it lasts a lifetime. You watch it coming to you very slowly. It feels like it’s going on and on and on when it might not be that long. Every second feels elongated. To capture that, I wanted it to happen that slowly. Your heart has to break and you must become one with her vulnerability. Yes, it’s aesthetic. But the eventual feeling it inspires is horror. And the idea was for you to stay and process that violation and not look the other way. You already do that in real life.
Was it imagined any other way or were there any discussions to do it implicitly?
It was always like this on paper. And even during the shot breakdown, it remained unchanged. For Mahendra, she is his toy, his guddia. He loves her. He plays with her. He’s like a child. So when she isn’t talking or not responding to him, he gets upset. When he climbs on to her, he says ‘khelo.’ Why aren’t you playing with me? Now his mind is of a child, but the body is of a man. So when he’s on her, it reaches that point. He imposes his will on her with the entitlement of a child. Nobody has ever said no to him. He’s always gotten all that he wanted. The only person who’s said no to him is Indraneil. Even here, the idea always was to stay with Bulbbul’s pain, not with the man or his animalistic lust or whatever. I felt it was a more powerful way of showing it.
The most powerful scene in the movie is “Chup Rehna’ between Binodini and Bulbbul.
It condemns the culture of silence which continues to exist while also revealing so much about Binodini’s life and the cycle of violence. She’s spiteful and petty towards Bubbul but there’s awareness and empathy in their shared pain.
The moment where she’s dressing her up and literally concealing her wounds to project a false sense of normalcy is terrific and sums up a whole world.
On the set, I always told my cast and crew that Binodini is the film’s most tragic character. Although it’s Bulbbul who has gone through the worst, Binodini has suffered so much she couldn’t even rise. Bulbbul is complete. She found her power. Binodini didn’t become wise. She became shrewd. Her sense of power is petty. In that moment, you realise the pain she has endured. And what’s her balm? “Chup Rehna.” She has been told this so many times, it’s the only way she knows how to heal. She has been taught to please people. I cried while writing that scene. It’s a culmination of everything women have been told.
All girls are taught to be nice. Speak at a certain level. Run a certain way. Keep your hair braided. Don’t raise your voice. Sit a certain way. That’s why I wear sarees. You keep legs however you like and it still looks okay. Oh, the times I’ve been pinched and tapped and nudged to sit properly. Tie your hair up! Why are you such a mess? Be nice, everyone has to like you! Your school friends have to like you. Be nice! Your in-laws have to like you. Be nice! Your bosses have to like you. Be nice! Laugh at their jokes!
That is Binodini. She stands for that cultural upbringing. That hardened conditioning. Binodini is everywoman. Think about her tragedy. Bulbbul is the opposite. She’s the scariest when she’s smiling. It’s like she sees through you. She witnesses you. And that’s threatening because you feel...
Yes! You over-explain things and talk in circles. Terry Pratchett has this wonderful character called Granny Weatherwax. She’s a witch. And how is she described? “She could make you feel like a fool just by looking at you. Just by listening to you.” That’s how Bulbbul makes others feel powerless. Because she’s complete. I don’t know if you noticed but even when Satya is talking to her, she’s just quiet. She’s looking through him. That in itself is scary. Because you feel truly seen. Nobody wants that.
Among its shortcomings, I felt the film was predictable in the sense that so many obvious signs allude to Bulbbul being the chuddail. Did you always know this and were okay with it or you felt it could’ve been cleverer?
It’s a gamble I took. For me, it was a ‘howdunit’ and not a ‘whodunnit’. It’s not an investigative mystery. I am telling you a tale of this girl. Who she is and how she became this way. You see her as a little girl and then you see her as this grownup woman fanning herself. I wanted to fill in the gaps between.
I knew the audience was gonna go, come on, she’s literally saying it! Look at the way she’s looking at you, look at the way she’s smiling! It’s deliberate. I am giving that benefit to the audience. That you are smart. You understand stories, you understand people, you get characters. I am engaging you purely through the telling of it. And it’s okay if the characters in the film don’t get it. Some of them are pretty daft. It was never supposed to be a suspenseful film. It was a character’s journey. Of this girl losing her freedom and then regaining it.
We’ve seen the trope of murder being used to avenge rape and that in itself is problematic as we’re more inclined towards a reformative form of justice than retributive. Of course, here we’re in a fantasy space. But what’s your own reading of the film’s broader idea?
Bulbbul isn’t the norm. She is a character. She isn’t, of course, perfect. Now in reality what happens to women is much worse. The emotional, the physical and the psychological abuse is much, much worse. In telling of the story, I chose to tell it this way. I wanted the cold rage of women to find an outlet. To find a depiction. Now, it might be a moral moot point, sure, but the film’s end is, in a way, is representative of women’s collective rage. She’s broken so badly that in that time and place, this is her idea of justice. Who’s going to listen to her? Where’s the recourse? Who’ll believe her? So in this specific setup, what does a Bulbbul do? The cyclical nature of violence is such that you become the perpetrator too. Obviously, I’m not saying this is the right way to address the problem, but for my character, it is. In reality, justice is always slipping away from our fingers. At least in fantasy we can see it happen.
How about the binary that the film goes into? There’s a moment where Sudip goes, daayan nahi devi hai. So either we are deifying women or demonising them.
That’s Sudip’s flaw. He’s not a saviour, unlike Satya who so desperately wants to be and basically just decides that Bulbbul needs to be shipped to her maternal home as she’s hanging out with other men. He is taking away her agency by deciding on her behalf. Sudip, on the other hand, has a reverential attitude towards Bulbbul. He’s in awe of her. He isn’t insecure around powerful women, he looks up to them. But he isn’t too smart either. That’s why she calls him ‘darpok’ and smiles at him with a sense of pity. She doesn’t want to be worshipped. The point is: a person as evolved as Sudip is also incapable of treating Bulbbul with a sense of humanity. And that’s what we do. We either worship women or demonise them. Nobody wants to let them just be. Power is a very strange thing for people to understand.
One of the understandings that came to me after the #MeToo movement was this idea that the movement exists on the Internet in the imperfect shape and form that it does, is because existing institutions responsible to serve justice have failed to provide any semblance of it.
Now your film is set in early 19th century but the oppression that it depicts has remain unchanged.
What does justice for a Bulbbul look like today?
People call the film a feminist fairytale. It isn’t. It’s a tragedy. The story is set 200 years ago but it’s still relevant. The voice is still as prevalent. It isn’t something that you say “oh this used to happen.” It is still happening. In houses and offices and trains and buses. The very fact that I am telling this story is a reflection of my pain and disappointment.
Now why am I telling it? Stories, I believe, have an insidious power. I make it pretty-looking to invite you in it. But once in, you realise it’s a Dorian Gray kind of a painting. You see your own reality, your own reflection, your own complicity.
At the very least, I hope it makes you think and introspect. It’s also a warning to women. Don’t wait for someone to come and fix it. Don’t be quiet. Reclaim the power you’ve always had. Of course, my character takes it to an extreme.
What does justice for Bulbbul look like today? I don’t know. Women are talking about it. If not to everyone else, to each other. Isn’t that like telling stories? This happened, this shouldn’t happen and hoping like hell that men will question themselves. Was I inherently a misogynistic? Stories have that power to challenge deep-rooted biases. And that’s why stories become scriptures.