Tag Archives: Anvita Dutt

Movie Review: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

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Movie Review: Phillauri (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

There’s so much to love about Phillauri on its own merits, but it also represents something important within the Hindi-film industry. This film is the product of an actress taking control of her career, in effect saying to the industry, “This is the caliber of movie I think the audience wants and the type of quality role female performers deserve.” It’s a powerful statement packaged within a fun, touching romantic-comedy.

Phillauri is the second movie by Clean Slate Films, a production house run by actress Anushka Sharma and her brother, Karnesh. As with Clean Slate’s first movie, the excellent 2015 revenge thriller NH10, Sharma stars in Phillauri in a role that explicitly addresses gender issues in a progressive way.

Sharma plays a ghost named Shashi, whose spirit has been trapped in a tree since her death many years ago. She’s ripped from her arboreal abode when a young man with an unlucky love life — Kanan (Suraj Sharma) — marries her tree in an effort to improve his luck before marrying his childhood sweetheart, Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Shashi and Kanan are shocked to find themselves metaphysically hitched following the tree ceremony — especially Kanan, since he’s the only living person who can see Shashi.

As Kanan copes with the stress of preparing for his wedding to Anu with a ghost in tow, Shashi tries to recall how she died. She finds the modern world unfamiliar and too liberal for her taste — she’s scandalized by Anu’s backless dress and Kanan’s whiskey-drinking grandmother — but seeing a DJ spinning a record at the young couple’s engagement party brings back a flood of memories.

Flashbacks show us Shashi’s hometown of Phillaur outside of Amritsar in the early 20th Century. Traveling salesmen bring a phonograph to town to show off the latest technology, and Shashi sneaks out of the house to listen to the music, against the wishes of her overly protective and status-conscious older brother.

Beautiful Shashi is spotted at the phonograph demonstration by a popular local singer who goes by the nickname “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh), a name that can be applied to anyone who hails from the town of Phillaur. He asks Shashi why she doesn’t sneak away to listen to his bawdy tunes the way the other single women do. She chastises him for wasting his platform on tacky frivolities instead of using it to elevate his audience, inspiring them with poetic lyrics and opening their minds to new ideas. He has the opportunity to reach an audience that others don’t have access to, particularly women during this time period.

Sharma knows first-hand about the film industry’s continuing focus on the youth and beauty of female performers, resulting in short careers and insubstantial roles as eye-candy alongside one of a handful of middle-aged male actors. Like some of her female contemporaries, Sharma is using her hard-earned star power and connections to bankroll movies that feature strong women in uplifting roles. When her character in Phillauri talks about using one’s platform for good, it’s a statement of her own purpose and a challenge to the men who dominate the film industry in front of and behind the camera to do the same.

Sharma also deserves kudos in her capacity as a producer for assembling a top-notch crew to make Phillauri. Helming his first picture, director Anshai Lal gets great performances from his cast — Suraj Sharma’s high-pitched whimpering is a hoot — in a film that looks fabulous, also thanks to cinematographer Vishal Sinha. The costumes by Veera Kapur are as lush as Sameer Uddin’s score, which makes the tear-jerking climax all the more memorable. Writer Anvita Dutt’s screenplay is tight and layered.

It’s unfortunate that not all of the songs’ lyrics are subtitled in English. Some are, when the lyrics are of particular plot significance, but there’s no reason why all of the songs shouldn’t be. Failing to do so puts international audiences at a disadvantage.

Yet a lack of subtitles doesn’t impede understanding because the script is “high-concept” done right. Phillauri‘s entertaining and heartfelt story translates just fine.

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