Tag Archives: Anvita Dutt

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.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Movies + Shows by Women — June 26, 2020

Last week featured so many movies I had to split the article into two. This week only has four entries, but you can find a great and needed film out of a stack of four or a pile of dozens. Please heed the following as you read:

A Content Warning

I want to be very particular about two of the entries this week. One is an Indian gothic horror movie that centers around criticizing the country’s history of child marriage. The other is a U.S. documentary that focuses on the cover-up perpetrated by USA Gymnastics to hide the sexual abuse of 500 girls.

I delve into some of the statistics or similar incidents for each, as well as providing some resources for learning more about helping, so please consider this a content warning. I’ll also place individual content warnings before those specific entries, which are the first two being covered.

Bulbbul (Netflix)
directed by Anvita Dutt

CW: CHILD MARRIAGE

Set in India during the 1880s, a 5 year old girl named Bulbbul is married off to a man decades her elder. After several years, the man’s younger brother Satya, whom she initially assumed to be her intended husband, is sent to London. Satya returns to find his family missing, and Bulbbul the only remaining survivor. He’s told his family was taken by a witch, just as some villagers have been. A gothic horror mystery ensues.

Director Anvita Dutt has primarily worked as a screenwriter and songwriter on Indian films. “Bulbbul” is her directorial debut.

“Bulbbul” has received a mountain of praise in India as a fable with a strong feminist message. Though child marriage is technically illegal in India, UNICEF reported in 2017 that 27% of women in India are married by the age of 18. Believe it or not, that’s an improvement from 47% a decade earlier in 2006. India’s own National Family Health Survey has mirrored these numbers very closely.

However, both of these studies rely on self-reporting. This means that with a stronger national prohibition passed in 2006 and a greater focus on eliminating child marriage, that improvement – such as it is – may reflect an increased number of people lying about marriage ages more than it does the actual reality of the situation.

UNICEF also reported in 2017 that at least 7% of women in India are married by the age of 15. That’s one in every 14 girls.

My knowledge on this ends about where the statistics do. I don’t want to pretend I can educate on the problem much further than that. To learn more please take a look at Girls Not Brides, an organization dedicated to ending child marriage in every country. They have a lot of information on the topic, resources to help educate all of us about the problem, and steps you can take to help with girls’ empowerment, education, health support, and a number of other important priorities for girls around the world.

You can watch “Bulbull” with a Netflix subscription.

Athlete A (Netflix)
co-directed by Bonni Cohen

CW: SEXUAL ABUSE OF MINORS

“Athlete A” is a documentary about USA Gymnastics systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of more than 500 children by the organization’s doctor.

Everything I just mentioned in the commentary for “Bulbbul” – we see it happen in other countries and there’s a privileged impulse to imagine they’re backwards and that sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Yes, it does. Our culture, our country isn’t immune from this. This was one organization that saw 500 children abused by one man. How many other systems aren’t scrutinized?

Dozens, if not hundreds, of politicians and celebrities who cavorted around with Jeffrey Epstein will likely never be held accountable. He was hardly the only perpetrator. He was just the largest we know about. The system in the United States just practices it differently, so let’s not feel better about ourselves when we read about what happens in other countries. Let’s recognize that it needs to be improved everywhere.

For every Penn St., for every USA Gymnastics, for every Jeffrey Epstein, how many do we not know about? If those can be successfully hidden for decades, how many were successfully hidden even longer? How many are still hidden? Let’s not pretend our country doesn’t have this same problem, and let’s not pretend as if we’ve magically avoided allowing it to be systematized in how it’s ignored and covered up.

The documentary follows the investigation not just into the perpetrator of these crimes, but those who covered it up, destroyed evidence, and lied to police – allowing it to continue.

Director Bonni Cohen is a powerhouse in documentary filmmaking, having produced “The Rape of Europa” about Nazi art theft, “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” about environmental redlining, directed “An Inconvenient Sequel” about climate change and green energy, and produced and directed “Audrie & Daisy” about online bullying – just to name a few. She directs here with Jon Shenk, who she’s produced and directed with before.

You can watch “Athlete A” with a Netflix subscription.

Clemency (Hulu)
directed by Chinonye Chukwu

This is a movie I featured before when it was first available to rent. This is the first time it’s on a subscription-based service. In a time of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, I can’t keep track of which rule about re-featuring I’m being consistent about or not, so new rule: movies starring Alfre Woodard get to break the rules.

“Clemency” won director Chinonye Chukwu the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. She was the first Black woman director to win it. Woodard plays a prison warden wrestling over the execution of one more inmate. The film itself seems to examine the social and racial implications of what she does, while allowing Woodard the room to play a character losing her own humanity.

The film feels like it could be especially relevant right now.

You can watch “Clemency” with a Hulu subcription, or rent it for $6 from Amazon, Fandango, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, or YouTube.

Daddy Issues (digital rental)
directed by Laura Holliday

“Daddy Issues” is a slacker comedy about a struggling stand-up comic who moves to L.A. to take over her late father’s business. She’s been distant from him and doesn’t know what – or who – she wants out of life.

This is director Laura Holliday’s first feature film.

You can rent “Daddy Issues” for $4 from Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube, or $5 from Microsoft or Vimeo,

Other Releases

I’ll quickly highlight a pair of other projects that are getting additional ways to see them.

Director Nubia Barreto’s telenovela “All for Love” is now on Netflix. It’s a Colombian series about a poor boy getting involved in organized crime in an attempt to find his lost sister, and developing a relationship with an up-and-coming singer along the way. You know, as one does.

“XX” is a horror anthology featuring four segments each written and directed by a woman, including horror master Karyn Kusama, first-time director Annie Clarke (better known as musical artist St. Vincent), Roxanne Benjamin, and Jovanka Vuckovic, as well as a title segment by Sofia Carrillo. It’s been on Netflix before, but Hulu’s got it now, so that may make it available to some new viewers. Anthologies are often a great way to learn about writers and directors whose work you’re seeing for the first time.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.