New Delhi: The expression of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ should be reserved for one’s actions, not their physical appearance, believes “Bulbbul” director Anvita Dutt who says every scar has a story behind it.
A burn on the face, a glass eye or a hunchback, the personality of many villains in our books and pop culture is often described in terms of the overt.
In her directorial debut “Bulbbul”, Dutt gives an original voice to the legend of the witch, who is nothing but a woman wronged.
“For me scars are stories. I don’t look at them as a deformity. At a simple level it is what happened that this happened. Ugly are actions, not appearances,” she told PTI in an interview over a Zoom call.
It is sort of befitting that Dutt upended the idea of the witch, often portrayed as a conniving, evil woman with magic powers by the Brothers Grimm, German authors who collected and published folklore during the 19th century.
“Grimm Brothers took oral tradition stories and put it down on paper for the first time. But at the heart of it, they were all cautionary tales told to little girls to warn them about what can go wrong under the guise of an engaging, spooky and fun story, always ending with the hope of rescue.”
But the only way in Indian oral oral tradition histories differed was there was no talk of a rescue.
“It ended with a girl dying and coming back as a chudail. These figures of women were later sanitised and became just a scary story but essentially, they were all women wronged coming for justice. Our cautionary tales had a warning ahead for boys.”
Dutt, an avid reader, said the witch lore has always fascinated her.
In India, it is still believed that when a woman dies from being a victim of brutality or sexual assault, she comes back as a ‘chudail’ to take revenge.
“Even now women dying like that are buried or burned, face down and feet tied. Sometimes their toes are nailed together so that she can’t get up and her feet don’t twist. Then at the burial site, they scatter mustard seeds. Thinking when she rises and sees the seeds, because she is a woman, she will collect the seeds all night. Then she will go back. It is so sad,” she said.
The filmmaker said the feet, a central motif in “Bulbbul”, are also a symbol that a woman is supposed to walk down a certain path.
“Even mothers and grandmothers tell us how to be. If we don’t, we get to hear ‘I’ll break your legs’. So, the twisted feet is a demon of your own making.”
The widely praised film, fronted by Tripti Dimri, has also received some criticism for its depiction of violence against women to achieve empowerment.
Dutt said she is ok with the criticism.
“Receive the story for just that, forget about the messaging. Stories heal you. They find a new way of thinking for you. You get the messaging, good. It changes you, great. It doesn’t change you, it’s fine. (But) This is my story. It begins and ends for me at that.”
The longtime lyricist-dialogue writer, known for “Student of the Year”, “Queen”, penned the script years ago and said when she was in the act of writing it, she was “changing myself”.
“I had to reach my late 30s to transform. I didn’t want other girls to take so many years. It’s such a waste.”
Set in Bengal of the late 19th century, “Bulbbul” follows a young girl’s journey from innocence to strength as the legend of a witch casts a shadow over her world.
The solid work of the team, including production designer Meenal Agarwal, cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, music composer Amit Trivedi, helps the Netflix film realise Dutt’s vision – a mishmash of fantasy, beauty and humanism.
“The more fantastical it gets, the more humanised the emotion is and that’s what I love about these stories,” she said.
Most of it was filmed in Mumbai with set extensions through visual effects, but the scenes with the exterior of the ‘haveli’ and Binodini’s (Paoli Dam) room was shot at the majestic Rajbari Bawali, which a 2.5 hours drive from Kolkata.
Among all sorts of layers, the influence of Bengali literature like Tagore’s “Chokher Bali” and “Nastanirh” flows through the film as seamlessly as the crimson hues, but the director said it is primarily Bulbbul’s story.
“The so-called homage came into my story subconsciously, even I was very delighted. But it was never like ‘Oh a tip of the hat to Tagore’.”
On the whole, the film is a tragedy with all characters, including the men – Indranil (Rahul Bose), Satya (Avinash Tiwary) and Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), as victims of patriarchy.
“Binodini is the most tragic character. Her idea of power is just about managing to make the day. Indranil’s act is monstrous, he is not. He is burdened by the responsibility of being the patriarch. He believes that’s how he is supposed to be.
“The nice guy Satya would have saved the princess in the Disney fairytale. But then you see him slipping into the same trap. Sudip is a reflection of the Renaissance man. Almost in awe of Bulbbul who knows she is more than what he can imagine or deal with.”
Calling it a “howdunnit” as opposed to a whoddunit, Dutt said the film doesn’t glorify the witch as a “martyr”.
“It is about payback. It’s not the burning of the woman but also the forest that feeds her. That you will burn down that system rather than let her survive,” adding her friends director Shakun Batra and music composer Vishal Dadlani have sensitively responded to the film.
The film is produced by actor Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz.