Oh, hey. Another movie about the friendship between two girls and a guy. Let’s hope that there is not too much death this time around.
Erm…okay. This is the third shot in the movie. It is unclear what this person is doing, but unlike the previous two shots, it at least establishes that she is still alive.
After…who knows how much struggling and bickering, Bulbul, Banita, and Suman have managed to build a swing on a tree branch. Bulbul sits on it and then stands on it. She is having fun and the others enjoy seeing her joy. But Suman…or Sumu…has to sour the moment. He notes that Bulbul has her hair down. So what? Well, he explains that she is so beautiful that a ghost will catch her. A young girl had killed herself just a few days ago. Denied salvation, her ghost wanders around. Her dreams unfulfilled, her ghost is determined to deny the dreams of other girls out of jealousy. Later, Bulbul ties up her hair and the three go to gather sticks.
Bulbul is at home in the evening, preparing food. She then goes to wash up when a coconut falls from a nearby tree. This startles her so much that she runs inside. Is it someone watching? Is it the ghost? I mean, it was a coconut, but…
It is Diwali, and Bulbul is helping to light up the diyas with her mother. Her little brother comes to pester her mother about getting firecrackers, using the “all my friends” plea and being absolutely no help.
Banita, or Bonny, is also lighting up diyas with her mother. Perhaps it is only the boys and men playing with firecrackers and screaming while the girls and women are quietly working. Actually, that is not entirely true. Bulbul manages to light up a little sparkler with one of the diya’s just before Bonny and Sumu arrive to hug her.
At school, Sumu goes to the bath…uh…room. Two younger boys immediately start taunting him. For…hanging out with Bulbul and Bonny? For…having Bulbul trim his eyebrows? They call him a girl and tell him to go to the girls’ toilet. Two other boys join in on the bullying and they try to pull his pants down.
Oh, that boy is giving Bulbul the eye. He had been gazing at her in class earlier.
Music time. The instructor has the kids sing scales one by one with the harmonium. Two of the kids do horribly. Bonny does pretty well. Bulbul does alright too, or she would if she would sing louder and not be so shy. This movie is called Bulbul Can Sing, not Bonny Can Sing.
Even Bulbul’s father is fine with singing, right there at home on the steps in the morning while she goes to brush her teeth before her chores of managing pigs and picking up twigs. Then he yells at his wife and Bulbul because he is unable to find his work shirt.
Bulbul, Bonny, and Sumu manage to catch…is that an autorickshaw? The three of them are chatting in the back when one of the guys in the front starts staring at them. Bulbul notices and starts berating him. Hasn’t he seen a girl before? Bonny joins in.
At school, Bulbul’s admirer calls for Sumu. He has written a poem and wants Sumu to give it to her. He cannot do it himself? Teenagers.
Meanwhile, Bonny has boy trouble. Apparently, she noticed her boyfriend, Deep, looking at someone named Tarali and wants to know what that was about. Deep denies it. She insists that he did. Well, maybe it was a mistake, he says. Bonny threatens to slit her wrists and kill him. That is…a bit much.
I guess that that must be the poem that Bulbul’s admirer wrote. Does she like it? Well, she’s smiling. And then she plays with a baby goat.
Oh, this is cute…and awkward. Do we even know this guy’s name? Whatever, his name is Parag. Also, Sumu is watching over the proceedings, I guess to make sure that it doesn’t go too far south or something. Anyways, Parag has written another poem about her, but it is not ready yet. Tomorrow.
The trio are goofing off in the water. The playfulness eventually turns towards the love lives of the two girls. Sumu asks Bonny whether she has kissed Deep yet, but she refuses to answer. He then starts teasing Bulbul for her courtship with Parag and those poems.
It is the nighttime and Bulbul’s father is singing outside to a couple of other guys. Meanwhile, Bulbul and her mother are doing chores. Bulbul asks how long he is going to be singing. Until midnight?
Bulbul’s father talks about taking part in singing competitions when he was young and wanting to sing on stage again. He also mentions that Bulbul has a lovely singing voice as well. He calls her over and asks her to sing a song. She does and she is…fine. Maybe a little off-pitch at times, but that could be her father’s instrument being out of tune. I don’t know.
Piggies! Apparently, they are much more profitable than goats, due to there being like 32 piglets born in a year. Well, that is what Bulbul’s father says. His neighbor argues that cows and goats are part of their heritage, while pigs are just disgusting. Meanwhile, Bulbul’s mother pulls her away from loitering by the water with her brother to search for one of the white pigs that has gone missing.
I don’t know if the white pig comes back, but the family has to run over to Bulbul’s father, who is arguing with a cow owner for letting it graze on their land. Again. The cow owner apologizes, but Bulbul’s father threatens to…take the cow to the police? Anyways, they arrive and try to calm him down before he does something that might also get the police involved.
Sometime later, Bulbul shoves her brother out of the house for…whatever reason. I guess so that she can hang out with…is that Bonny? No, it’s not. I cannot really say. Anyways, whoever it is asks why Bulbul is so angry all of the time when girls are supposed to be calm and modest. Not threatening to have a cow arrested.
Speaking of Bonny, it looks like she is with her sisters, hanging out by the…café where her mother works.
There is some music-dance cultural event competition thingamee. Bulbul and Bonny are part of a singing group. Sumu shows up because he is tired with putting up with taunts from the other boys calling him a girl. Bulbul says that those boys are ignorant.
The boys are engaging in some not very successful flirting with little girls when Bulbul and Sumu show up to confront them about their teasing. The boys somehow deny it and a shouting match ensues. A couple of adults arrive to break up the dispute.
Sometime later, the trio are…doing homework? Sumu is trying to read something in English, but is not faring well, and Bulbul complains that he is distracting her from her writing.
Parag helps Bulbul up onto a tree branch. She asks him how he is able to write his poetry and he says that it just comes out once he falls in love. Awwww…Meanwhile, Sumu is out in the grass…I guess keeping lookout.
Later, the two lovebirds are in the grass and…oh…okay… Parag asks Bulbul how much she loves him. She tells him a lot. Will she be his forever? Yes. Promise.
During my write-up about Badhaai Do last month, I spent about three whole paragraphs talking about the Northeast of India, just because one of the actors is from Arunachal Pradesh. And here it is, the first movie of this series from the Northeast. While Arunachal Pradesh is the Northeast of the Northeast, Assam is right next to it, looking like Arunachal Pradesh is holding onto it.
This movie is set in Kalardiya village, where writer-director-cinematographer-editor Rima Das is from. Apparently, quite a few of the actors were locals, which probably explains them also having the name Das. That doesn’t mean that they are related to Rima, just that it is a very common name, sort of denoting a caste like Patel and Singh. A couple of these actors have no previous credits and one starred only in another Rima Das movie from the year before. Das has said that the only real professional actpr was the one who played Bulbul’s mother. So, there is a bit of an amateurness to the acting, but also effortless authentic chemistry.
This is a spiritual sequel to the movie that Rima Das made the previous year called Village Rockstars. I would recommend that movie were it available to stream outside of India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, it is not at the moment. While there is a video on Youtube, it has only Spanish subtitles. If you understand Spanish, then perhaps that could be a way to watch it. There ARE English subtitles available somewhere, but I do not feel comfortable recommending you get them from there in this write-up. Anyways, while they are separate stories, there are deliberate similarities in themes and style. But while Village Rockstars were about a group of kids who pretended that they were in a rock band, Bulbul Can Sing is about a trio of teenagers.
As would probably be the case with Village Rockstars, I found it a little hard to make a synopsis of the film, as it takes a while for the plot to unfold. A lot of it is composed of short scenes of everyday life that I skipped over in my summary, as it would take longer to describe them than to watch. It is a slice of life, showing what the characters do, and sometimes showing what they cannot do. It is chores, school, and downtime. And they don’t really have many options. There is moral policing all around, though it is not always out in the open. Sometimes it is in one’s own mind, causing oneself to restrict one’s actions and even desires. They are only free through each other.
It can be difficult to determine what time period this movie takes place. There are no phones or computers. They have backpacks and plastic jars. Given the presence of a digital camera just over halfway through the movie, It is perhaps safe to say that it takes place in modern times. Still, the village is just behind the times and isolated. Sure, they can go into the city, but it is a ways away. It is not a thing that they can frequently do.
Both Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing involve music, of sorts. The titles of both might make it seem like they are masala movies where characters break into song and dance every twenty minutes or so. But, instead, music appears to be relegated to certain segments of village society: the religious and ritualistic. The kids in Village Rockstars try to imagine another option, singing for fun. They even do “performances” for other kids. That is not really an option for the teenagers. Or it is, but they are more self-conscious around others.
Bulbul is named after a songbird. Her father says that she has a lovely voice and wants her to sing professionally, perhaps fulfilling the dream that he had had for himself. But her social anxiety regarding singing results in a weak voice. It is embarrassing for her. Bonny is a much stronger singer and everyone knows it. Yet, Bulbul is not a wilting flower. She can be loud and rebellious, sticking up for herself and yearning for a life other than what she sees. But this singing for others, singing the words of others for the sake of adults? That is not her. That is her father’s dream, not hers.
The main characters are teenagers, with hormones and racing minds, slowly crawling their way towards adulthood, but without the tools to get there safely. The characters have feelings of sexuality, but with no one to guide them or help them understand. That Bulbul and Bonny have boyfriends are tolerated, but they are not allowed to hold hands romantically in public, let alone kiss. They must not let themselves be ruined; they must not tarnish their families. When Sumu teases them about their love lives, there is a bit of an edge to it. The tale of the ghost is one that the director had heard. Girls are expected to have long hair, but are meant to have it tied up. Sumu was not trying to hurt Bulbul; he was probably genuinely trying to keep her safe. Yet the results are the results. While the specific issues in the movie could be attributed to the setting being a seemingly isolated village, similar issues crop up all around the world.
This movie has been described as an LGBTQ+ film and…probably…maybe. Rima Das has pretty much stated in interviews that Sumu is homosexual, but the movie itself is kind of subtle about it, I guess? There are many clues suggesting that Sumu is…different, but it is not explicitly spelled out how. Perhaps the specifics are not meant to matter. He hangs out with two girls without any romantic relations with either of them. The main girl in Village Rockstars got some criticism from village women for hanging out with boys, but I guess that the segregation is even more strict for teenagers. And Sumu violates that. Additionally, his gestures could sometimes be considered effeminate, maybe. It is perhaps more pronounced in some scenes than others. There could also be some other cultural markers that I missed, due to not being Northeast Indian. But he is constantly being crapped on by the others for not being sufficiently manly, and he rarely retaliates. Younger boys call him a woman frequently. Older ones sometimes do as well. No wonder he doesn’t hang out with them.
Bulbul and Bonny seem to be the only ones who accept Sumu for who he is and stand up for him…sometimes. Their boyfriends, particularly Parag, seem to be okay with him too, though they don’t tend to be around to stand up for him when he is getting harassed. He does sometimes feel lonely. Perhaps there is no one in the world like him. Yes, he has his friends, but they are not…like him. They don’t know what it is like to be him. He might not understand either. The movie does not specify what he is because no one in the movie can. Probably no one around him does; there are no words that they know of to explain it except through the language of bullying and the social pressure to conform. And either he doesn’t want to conform or he just cannot. And he suffers for it. He seems to be the most religious of the trio, but religion does not provide him sanctuary. All he has is Bonny and Bulbul. They may not understand him, but they do. And that has to be enough.
The singing is a metaphor for hope and life through troubles. Bulbul can sing, but not for others. Not for school. Not for her father. She sings for herself, when she is alone. Only she can determine her own dreams. Only she can determine when, how, and what she will sing.
WTF ASIA 249: Sepet (Malaysia: 2005, approx. 102 minutes)
Available if this video works for you.
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