Review: Bulbul Can Sing (2018)

Photo courtesy of Screen Daily

Based in an Assamese village, Rima Das’s titular protagonist, Bulbul, and her teenage friends, Bonny and Sumu experience a coming-of-age discovering their sexualities and identities. The movie takes place mostly in the village school where these friends study and with Bulbul’s family. Das has managed to capture some distinct characteristics shared in the Assamese village that urban dwellers such as myself in Singapore would experience: school stress, family pressure, conservative cultures, pursuing dreams, and facing the unknown at that coming-of-age stage of your life.

Bulbul Can Sing begins on a self-setup swing mounted to a tree with Bulbul, Bonny, and Sumu swinging on it. The film explores typical student narratives in a village school, such as academic pressure from learning English, and how the students are told to sing the Solf├Ęge system in Assamese and are being compared to their peers. I found that they captured the essence of the pressure to excel really well, along with portraying something common such as academics but how it is done differently in an Assamese village.

Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Bulbul’s individual struggle is how she is caught between being told to pursue singing by her father and being told to be a modest woman rather than walking barefoot and with untied hair by her mother. She also struggles to sing well. Bonny sings well, but struggles with pressure from the community. For Sumu, they captured how his effeminate behaviour was received by both his close friends – supportive and caring, and his male classmates taunting him endlessly until Bonny speaks up for him.

While the film had its merits overall and I could see why it was nominated for two film festivals, I felt that the first half of the film was too slow-paced, especially the scenes involving Bulbul’s family’s background. While it does explain why she lives a conflicted life, the plot is slow and some of the school scenes feel slightly repeated and draggy after a while.

Photo courtesy of TIFF
I preferred second half of the film as it holds more substance. It showcases the teenage friends being expelled from their school as they experiment with their sexualities at that tender age. We see how the teachers and principal sit at an outdoors round table discussion to discuss the next step. 

As a result of this expulsion, Bonny commits suicide by drowning herself. This causes unintentional grief for not just Bonny’s mother who has lost her only child, but also for Sumu and Bulbul. We also see the others in their circle refusing to attend school. We see how opinions differ between the villagers, such as whether they felt suicide was due to the pressure, or about the repercussions such actions have. 

There is a part where Bulbul walks towards her swing set, but the swing set’s ropes are torn, and the swing set is no longer usable. This also adds to the sadness felt by those affected by Bonny’s suicide and adds a metaphorical meaning of irreplaceable absence. It is for these reasons that Bulbul’s voice is shown to its greatest potential, as it is filled with grief, sadness, and regret. 

Perhaps Das wanted the ending of the film to send a philosophical message. The scenes showing Bulbul bonding with Bonny’s mother by buying groceries from the local market and transitioning to the both of them by the beach with a rainbow overheadpossibly depicting that Bonny is looking down at themis tearjerking and beautiful. In most Indian subcultures, afterlife and spirituality are heavily important. I perceived this philosophical ending as implying there is a silver lining when facing uncontrollable external adversities in life.

Bulbul Can Sing was screened in competition at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival, and was also an official selection at both the Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and Busan International Film Festival 2018.

Written by Varun Naidu

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