Tripti Dimri in Bulbbul

When Human Horror Exceeds Our Fables — “Bulbbul”

CW: Please be aware the following review includes discussion of two topics in “Bulbbul”: child marriage and sexual assault.

How does a movie scare you with the threat of a supernatural horror when it opens with a very real one? “Bulbbul” is an Indian film set in the 1880s. It starts with a child bride being married off. It doesn’t happen in some criminal underworld, in a cult, or on the dark web as in so many other films. It takes place as a celebration, attended by nobility, decorated to an exacting detail. It takes place in the open, according to a tradition, as everyone watches smiling.

The child is Bulbbul, who is taken from her home by carriage. Here she meets Satya, a young boy. He regales her with fairy tales of a vengeful ghost, a monster who lurks in the woods at night. She’s reassured because she can connect with him. Surely, this must be her new husband. Yet when Bulbbul arrives in her new home and she’s set upon her new bed, it’s not Satya who meets her. It’s an adult man.

We’re sped along by years. An older Satya is returning to India from London. When he arrives at the home where he grew up, it’s not the same. His brothers are both gone – one missing, one murdered. His sister has become a monk. Bulbbul now runs the house in peace.

Satya has been away studying law. He believes in evidence, not rumors of a demon in the woods. So he studies it. He hunts it. He tries to put clues together. Despite being away for years, he dismisses Bulbbul, who’s been there. He tells her he knows better, that he’ll discover the killer.

“Bulbbul” understand the gothic horror framework where the aristocratic man pierces the veil of the supernatural with the logic of a well-ordered society. Yet if this well-ordered society starts with child marriage, then what is there to understand? How could that logic possibly present truths or accuracy? When it starts from a place of justifying horror, how can it be imagined that this logic could expose it instead of cover it over?

Flashbacks are frequent and skillfully done. We see the difference between Bulbbul growing up and connecting with Satya, versus the disconnect that exists between them now. It contrasts Bulbbul’s aching and emptiness then, with her satisfaction and a greater completion now.

Tripti Dimri’s performance as Bulbbul is remarkable, especially in contrasting these younger and older versions of herself. Each fits into a different archetype of gothic horror. The younger is understandably manic, alternately exuding joy before plummeting into depression and fear – like a Regency-era heroine who’s barely holding on. The older Bulbbul is calm, collected, precise, often amused.

Here, Dimri finds a precise balance to walk between the casually self-assured gothic horror hero and the sort of Anthony Hopkins-esque performance of a character who acts for the camera while others act for her. Discovering the bridge between her younger and older selves is what makes up the core of the film. While Satya may fill the typical hero’s role, the film never strays far from Bulbbul because that typical hero’s role is useless and misguided.

Does “Bulbbul” work as a horror movie? Yes, in that director Anvita Dutt does the work of shifting the anchors of horror movies in order to explore territory that’s often ignored. “Bulbbul” is extensively stylish and meticulously designed, but it’s also efficient. Gothic horrors do their best work in their extravagances, but “Bulbbul” is a movie that inherently finds extravagances are built on someone else’s suffering.

This means “Bulbbul” takes some build-up to fully convince you of its most intense genre moments. It might never fully do so. I was creeped out here and there, but there was no point where I was scared by the supernatural elements. I was aghast at the real moments, though. These are far more oppressive.

After all, it opens with a child being married off to an adult. It witnesses just a few of countless more horrors that child must face as a result. What monster could possibly be more horrible than that? What make-up effect could they put on-screen to make us scream in revulsion more than a child sitting in a bed asking who her husband is, and an adult man telling her it’s him? It’s already horror before there’s any hint of a demon, before the moon turns red, before men are hunting in the forest and being picked off one by one.

“Bulbbul” doesn’t need to be loud in its genre moments when it thunders in its quietest. It’s dressed in all the style of gothic horror, and that style is impressive, but what “Bulbbul” really becomes is a fairy tale. It’s a fable, and a powerful one. It inverts what gothic horror typically does to remind us of what gothic horror too often forgets in its obsession with style: the most brutal monster that creates all his others is man.

It could be criticized as predictable, but its effectiveness and intelligence is what makes “Bulbbul” stand out over many less predictable horror options.

It’s a pretty good horror movie. It’s a phenomenal fable.

“Bulbbul” can be watched in the U.S. on Netflix.

Does “Bulbbul” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Bulbbul” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Tripti Dimri plays Bulbbul. Paoli Dam plays Binodini. Ruchi Mahajan plays Bulbbul as a child. There are some other, brief roles.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. Binodini and Bulbbul in particular have a complex power dynamic that shifts over time.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Among other things, they talk about each other, restrictions in their lives, and unsolved murders (of men, but I think it counts in this circumstance).

Some of what they talk about is coded speech to talk about a man without directly talking about him. This relates to the restrictions in their lives as women and the positions they’re expected to hold.

Some of what they talk about is a man, in a way that’s coded to talk about something else that they have to tiptoe around discussing.

There’s a good amount of smartly written dialogue between them that takes place along multiple layers of code – sometimes both understanding, sometimes only one.

Their dynamic is so interesting because in the past and in flashbacks, Binodini is alternately trying to protect Bulbbul while also diminishing Bulbbul’s power or sway within the house (and thus increase her own). This dynamic is completely reversed in the present, where Bulbbul is the one in control, after Binodini did something awful to suppress Bulbbul’s voice and access to justice.

The relationship presented here between them is beautifully and realistically complicated. Binodini has been victimized by a patriarchal system, recognizes how Bulbbul is being victimized by it, occasionally moves in roundabout ways to protect Bulbbul, but also understands her own power relies on this system and that she understands it and can take advantage of it better than Bulbbul can.

Binodini alternately fears that partiarchal system and loves its rewards. She both resents and loves Bulbbul, protecting her in some ways and victimizing her when she’s must choose between Bulbbul and that system. Paoli Dam hits every note of this relationship in a convincing way.

The film often centers on Bulbbul’s relationship with Satya and that is absolutely given far more screen time. The most complex and winding relationship belongs to Bulbbul and Binodini, though. It helps that Dam joins Tripti Dimri in delivering the best acting in the film, and that the script gives them such complex, coded, haunting material to work with together.

I’d also note that the film is both written and directed by Anvita Dutt. A longtime screenwriter and lyricist in the Indian film industry, “Bulbull” is her directorial debut.

Since this section can also function as a window into other forms of representation, I will say that it presents intellectual disability as a danger in a way that wasn’t necessary to getting where the film wanted to go in its story. That aspect of it is problematic.

A Note About Fighting Child Marriage

“Bulbbul” takes place in the 1880s, but it very much speaks to the world today. Child marriage is still a problem in India, with UNICEF reporting in 2017 that 27% of women in India are married by the age of 18. This relies on self-reporting, so the number is likely higher.

UNICEF also reported that 7% of women in India are married by the age of 15. That’s one in every 14 girls – and again, this relies on self-reporting, so the number is likely higher.

This isn’t just a problem in India, though. It’s not just a problem halfway around the world either. Hell, Ghislaine Maxwell was just arrested for helping Jeffrey Epstein supply the rich and powerful in Western countries with underage girls.

To learn more about how to fight this, take a look at Girls Not Brides. It’s an international organization dedicated to ending child marriage in every country. They work with many local organizations that don’t just fight child marriage, but that also fight for girls’ access to education, health care, and other resources to eliminate many of the elements that feed child marriage and other forms of victimization of girls. Please look at Girls Not Brides to know more and see what can be done to help fight this.

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One thought on “When Human Horror Exceeds Our Fables — “Bulbbul””

  1. Loved the movie. Will probably watch it again. “She’s not a witch. She’s a goddess”. Yes. The repeated visual motifs around women’s feet and how they represent freedom, shackles, magic was something I kept thinking about. Thanks for the rec.


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