Coming of age has different connotations in different parts of the world — and, yet, subliminally, the ethos remains the same: getting to finally fall into the groove that you mark out for yourself, with or without the help of a social ecosystem. In ‘popular’ reels, ecosystems are tweaked to fantastical levels, all the missing pieces falling in place to draw out a magical configuration; think Dil Chahta Hai, the one movie everyone points to whenever the phrase ‘coming of age’, in cinematic context, is uttered in mainstream India. In Bulbul Can Sing, the reality is overwhelming: if you buck the trend while trying to find your own niche, there’s nothing “feel-good” about it — the ecosystem is unforgiving.
Bulbul Can Sing is not a new movie, it released in 2018. But what are the chances of getting to watch an independent Assamese movie in any part of the world except at film festivals? Netflix started streaming Bulbul Can Sing a few months ago, and after the enthusiastic recommendation of a (proudly) Assamese friend, I finally got to watch it last weekend.
The plot charts the trail of three 15-year-olds, the eponymous Bulbul, and her two best friends Bonny and Sumu. They are happiest in each other’s company, even as they grapple with their own struggles. Sumu, for instance, is a boy who’s labelled a ‘lady’ by his classmates and teased mercilessly as he flounders to find balance in the throes of gender identity confusion. Then there’s Bulbul, whose father and schoolteachers want her to take singing seriously; she’s talented but suffers from stage fright.
The thread of the film is woven into the subtext of ‘finding’ themselves as these teenagers go through the excruciating painful rite of growing up and coming to terms with sexuality and the first flush of love… realising that living in a repressed, intimidating society, coming of age is a trial that teases you with dreams and leaves you alone to wake up to reality.
There’s a scene when the youngsters are discussing falling in love, while the older generation is worried that rats are eating up grains. In one fell sweep, the entire spectrum is stitched into a haunting matrix — the effervescence coalescing into the hard truth.
Director Rima Das shot to prominence — of a realistically niche variety — when her critically-acclaimed first film Village Rockstars became India’s official entry to the 90th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, making it the first Assamese movie to be bestowed that honour. Das gathers together a bunch of (mostly) newcomers and extracts a stunning array of ensemble performances.
The trio aside, there are starkly fleshed-out characters. The dodgy schoolteacher, whose behaviour borders on being inappropriate. A father who believes it’s his right as a male to be entitled. A mother who quietly goes about the business of holding the household together.
This is anything but a lavishly mounted film — but it’s hauntingly beautiful. The monsoons, that wreak so much havoc in Assam, posit a profligacy of romance. And as the river swells with muddy waters, the narrative hurtles towards its denouement.
A searing tragedy — propelled by social mores — pole-vaults the trajectory of life to a new dimension, and gets us to see the underlying vision, which is both tragic and open-ended (and, therefore, hopeful).
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