After the world premiere of Village Rockstars at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the young director of that film Rima Das journeyed to nearly 70 film festivals around the world. Which, of course, raises the question: How did she ever get the time to make another film? But it seems she managed, and the proof was screened at TIFF 2018. Like her previous film, Bulbul Can Sing also had its bow in Toronto.
As with Village Rockstars, Das once again chose her village in Assam as the location for this film. In the earlier film, the principal characters are children and as we leave them there, they have just entered puberty. With Bulbul, the cast is older, but not by much - just adolescents.
But if Village Rockstars documented small desires, we watch as these grow along with the characters at the core of the new film - Bulbul and her closest friends, Sumu and Bonnie. These are teenage urges, hormones churning resulting not just in acned faces but also the ache of infatuation and first love. And that is exactly what Bulbul and Bonnie experience with their beaus from school. Sumu, meanwhile, is a far more complex character, closeted as his sexuality doesn’t conform to the morality of the village, and its inhabitants torment him with the epithet “Ladies."
Bulbul starts with a communal celebration of Diwali, and for its first half, it follows the trajectory of Village Rockstars in its luminous course. But there are other fireworks due, and those will cause darkness to fall upon this idyll. Bulbul and Bonnie are the cause of the coming of shadows, and their crime is one of passion - stolen kisses with their paramours, necking in the woods. And in the discovery of their transgression lies the tragedy it fosters.
Das' films are almost entirely her own creations: She scripts, produces, and directs them, and even does the cinematography. Her camera is one that is intimate with her characters, their circumstances and their setting. There is a natural note to her filmmaking, and as the most harrowing scenes of the film unfold, it's like being an observer to a real-life crisis.
When Das arrived in Toronto last year with Village Rockstars, she was an unknown director, and her debut feature, Man With The Binoculars, had never quite made its presence felt. That changed with the platform TIFF provided for Village Rockstars. And with the praise lavished upon it, Das had the challenge of meeting expectations with her subsequent project. With Bulbul, she may just have surpassed them.
Das' films do not feature a conventional soundtrack, but move to the music of everyday life and as many characters sing folk or devotional songs, they add to the ambient environment. Interestingly, both Village Rockstars and Bulbul are connected to music. But with the latter, the harmony of the placid village is shaken, and Das strikes a resounding and deliberate note of dissonance with Bulbul Can Sing, as tradition clashes with young love. And sexual awakening.