On a rain-soaked afternoon, three friends, burdened with their school bags, look at a distance and decide to visit a temple situated there. As the boy among them dispenses his borrowed wisdom — “The temple is known for its influence and power…if someone is in love and wishes to be married, it is fulfilled” — two young girls nod in quiet anticipation. This tender scene, awashed with a specific kind of hopefulness — bred and nurtured by adolescence and posited so close to being pulverised by the pointed shards of adulthood — capture the ethos of both of Rima Das’ films, Bulbul Can Sing (2018) and Village Rockstars (2017).
Divided by a year, the films (streaming on Netflix) can be watched as an organic extension of the other; an episodic chronicling of an imaginary series. Das, who has written, edited and directed both, roots them in similar trajectories as she places her camera languidly on the paddy fields of Assam, presenting female adolescence in a rare intimate way. Standing a few steps behind the threshold of teenage, 10-year-old Dhunu in Village Rockstars is old enough to dream but is still frightfully young to realise they ought to be aligned with her reality. Seen from her untainted eyes, her surroundings bear no semblance of poverty or need. She perceives the emptiness of her house (her father had drowned in flood) not as a sign of early abandonment but as a window to freedom. She nurses no grudge against the river which swallowed her father, voices no complaint against the corrosive scarcity embossed on every meal she eats. Climbing trees with her friends and deriving joy from reading stories she has no one to narrate to, Dhunu occupies that stage of growing up which is oblivious to the consciousness of gender and curiosity of sexuality. She aspires to have what she has seen only from a distance: a guitar. Bulbul, all of 15, is tamer, quieter. She knows which tree to climb and when. Her feet have been trained to touch the ground, her dreams are humbled. She recognises a mirage from reality. Her gaze, with unsaid and continuous practice, has been lowered as she looks at temples with submissive hope and not at the sky with unchecked aspiration.
Das examines the different stages of adolescence through these protagonists and, with a lived-in perceptiveness, demonstrates not just their rites of passage but explores the crests and troughs along the way. She craftily foregrounds what growing up for a woman feels and looks like, underlines the ways it is different from her male counterpart and illustrates how conversations for her are merely veiled instructions, an ever-increasing catalogue enlisting what to do and what not to. Dhunu, who mostly plays with her brother’s friends, is incredulous when a group of women reprimand her for it. She should be friends with girls, they tell her. She sees no difference. Her mother — infuriated by the intervention — does. The widow recognises the directive creeping behind the advice, the familiarity of their chosen words. The strenuous physical labour undertaken by her is as much to keep the household running as it is an attempt to shield her daughter from a fate she knows will eventually befall. Her refusal to initiate a similar conversation then is a way to prolong Dhunu’s days of unbridled joy before her gender is made to feel like a burden to her. It is an act of maternal preservation.
By the second film, which takes a few strides ahead, Das’ gaze grows significantly darker. The 15-year-old Bulbul’s wants are different, so are the expectations from her. Casual reproach takes the form of public humiliation when she and her friend are found with two other boys meeting outside their school. It is an invasive scene and Das shoots it unsparingly, documenting the brutal unkindness with which young adults are treated. They are hounded and shamed, and as the film takes a sudden tragic turn, Das emphasises the inflexibility of the constrictions imposed on women and the regularity with which they are compelled to confront personal shame as a necessary juncture on their journey to adulthood.
When viewed together, the films provide a composite, delicate portrait of youth, including and validating the listlessness and restlessness that come with it. But they also highlight an intricate distinction between the unhurried process of growing up and the hasty need to grow up, arguing further that women are seldom afforded the luxury of time. Clad in her mother’s sari, Dhunu is offered money by other women. A feast is prepared at her home to celebrate the young girl’s induction into womanhood. At that moment, the 10-year-old Dhunu is forced to grow up. It is not shown but Dhunu would now make excuses every month to not go out with her friends. She will do it longingly looking out of the window, and will continue till they stop asking. For Bulbul, that one afternoon upended her life with fatal consequences. It curbed her mobility forever, forcing her to not place but measure her steps. It also filled her with guilt and dread. Das stresses on this when she desists from documenting the repercussions the boys must have suffered at home after that day. Her refusal signals her belief: it is always tougher for women.
Das reserves her strongest indictments against the society by refraining from embellishing the way they treat women, highlighting instead on their assumption that certain burdens are fit only for some shoulders. But the story she ultimately tells is of impossible hope piercing through those presumptions and discrimination. Her intent is evidenced in the way she plays with the titles of the film, using their apparent contradiction and obedience to both thwart and exceed our expectations. In Bulbul Can Sing, she traces Bulbul’s journey from adolescence to adulthood — an uneven slope, unanimously tumultuous — and in her apparent introspection of whether Bulbul can sing or not, underscores the common expectation that she is supposed to. The intrinsic and preconceived association of bulbul with singing becomes a metaphor for a set of behavioural diktats laid out and expected to be followed by women, whether 15 or not. That everybody feels she can sing better only furthers the film’s argument. Bulbul, however, does not try to please and herein lies her refusal to adhere. Village Rockstar and Bulbul Can Sing then are proclamations of defiance, one that is triggered and sustained by adolescence. They conclude with the hope that this resistance will possibly navigate the shards of adulthood and remain. But that is another film.
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