It is no mystery that Bollywood has been unceremoniously impotent at making horror movies, given a few exceptions. This lull can be attributed to Bollywood filmmakers not being able to break free from the mould of the usual bollywood thriller. One might assume that with the uprising of OTT content breaking all the conventions of the film industry and giving us some incredible films, there is redemption.
Bulbbul, a gothic horror flick set in 19th century British India and revolving around witches and other Indian supernatural elements, attempts to break the status quo; succeeds in some areas and fails in other key areas.
Written and Directed by Anvita Dutt of Queen fame, Bulbbul stars Tripti Damri (Bulbbul), Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam and Avinash Tiwary in the lead roles. The performances of the characters is a strong point of the film, as the actors have done a brilliant job of playing to the strengths of the rather flat characters. The plot itself revolves around a child bride being married off duplicitously to a much older man, and perhaps the premise of this film itself is much more spine chilling than most movies. A child thrust into shoes that are too big for her to fill, at the hands of dehumanizing old man that could get away with murder given his privilege. A literal child and a child trapped in an adult’s body both married to seemingly “normal people”, leading to a certain tension that’s hard to describe. Bulbbul gets points here, as this family’s oddness is extremely apparent.
Bulbbul’s character is especially one that is oddly self assured at first glance. The innocence of the child is stripped away in a lot of metaphorical ways as the plot progresses. The young matriarch settles into the odd family dynamic and very well owns it. Heartbreak and abuse has paved the way to her aloof, cold personality and despite being young she navigates the empty halls of the monstrous palace with finesse with a servant catering to every whim of hers. The film moonlights as a feminist critique with women taking back the power, but ends up being a run of the mill revenge horror movie with a very predictable plot.
The plot does have its moments, however. The thematic elements are strong. Jealousy remains a contextual tool for the plot, as it is the source of a lot of the conflict that arises. The interactions between Choti Bhabhi (Paoli Dam) and Bulbbul are especially good to watch as each line has subtext to it. The seemingly domestic interactions are much more than what they seem; Choti Bhabhi has to be subservient to this literal child by virtue of being married to another child (albeit stuck in an adults body).
The film’s biggest strength lies in its setting. The overhead shots of the palace are breathtaking, and each of the characters look regal. There is an air of superiority that they carry themselves with. If anything, the setting of the movie is excellent. There are certain areas where the film seems over directed, such as the rape scene that goes on way more than it should go on for, the abuse scene that does not really evoke the feelings of pathos or of disgust but the sheer focus on the aesthetics take away from the pain that the cuts are supposed to bring about.
The performances of the actors are quite good. Tripti Damri has a certain smirk that encapsulates the character of Bulbbul. She easily carries the weight of the plot on her shoulders, as many scenes are entirely reliant on her expressions alone. Her voice and tone make it hard to discern what she is feeling, but it seems fairly intentional on the part of the director. Paoli Dam is already a well established actor with several powerful roles in her roster, but she shines here as well. A conniving woman who is indirectly responsible for a lot of what happens in the movie, she is seemingly a woman that is the product of abuse as well. That is the narrative the plot is trying to set, but it derails in parts and ends up working against the alternative narrative of feminism. Rahul Bose as the Thakur is a great villain, a shining example of toxic masculinity taken to the fore. His mannerisms and shrill voice makes the character more interesting.
The film has a major pitfall in terms of its plot. While there are some strengths such as good setting, good performances and a great soundtrack, it’s plot gives away all spontaneity in favor of aesthetics. It is a great film to watch, but not a great film you will enjoy watching.