Indian filmmaker Rima Das returned to her native Assam village to make her movie about first love and friendship. At the Berlinale film festival, she told DW how the tale also carries traces of her own life story.
The Indian teenagers Bulbul, Bonny and Suman hang a swing in a tree in their village and take it easy.
But a sense of apprehension underlies the joy and carefree spirit when Suman tells Bulbul to pull back her long hair. Otherwise, the restless soul of a girl who committed suicide in that very spot might haunt her. Bulbul obeys, pulls back her hair — yet the drama takes its course.
Bulbul Can Sing, which screened at Berlin's International Film Festival, is a tale of friendship, finding one's own identity and first love. The three friends spend a lot of time together, and the camera captures their everyday lives. It follows them as they light fires for Diwali, run away screaming from the flames and cavort over the marshy fields; it follows them as they wash up at the communal water place, at choir rehearsal, as they hunt for a pig that is on the loose and as they simply observe nature around them.
Rima Das tells the story with stunning images. Almost every shot is a declaration of love for nature — but Das never romanticizes. She leaves no doubt that life without paved streets, computers and mobile phones is tough.
Life becomes fiction
The story is not entirely fiction. Director Das also wrote the film's script. Born in 1982, she grew up in the village of Kalardiya in northeastern India's Assam region, where the film was shot. Most of cast members are amateurs.
Memories of Das' own life color the film, such as when Bulbul's mother admonishes the girl to be modest and not to hitch up her dress, or when she has to meet her father's demands that she become a professional singer, even though she is afraid to sing in front of an audience
Failed acting career
In 2003 Das, an aspiring actress, moved to Mumbai, but she never gained a foothold. She was depressed, she told DW, but eventually decided to make films instead of pursuing an acting career. Regarding Bulbul Can Sing, her third film, the woman who never attended a film academy ended up writing the script, creating the set, filming, directing, editing and producing almost on her own.
Das' previous film, Village Rockstars, won Best Film at the Indian National Film Award and was India's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, though it wasn't nominated as a finalist. At the Berlinale, Bulbul Can Sing ran in the Generation section, after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival.
During the shoot for Village Rockstars in her native village, Das a particular boy caught her attention. The other villagers made fun of him and called him "lady" because of his feminine traits. She not only ended up modeling the Suman character in Bulbul Can Sing on him — he also plays the part.
Suman is a key figure in the film. While standing watch for Bulbul and Bonny, who have fallen in love and want some private time, he ends up getting bullied, forcing him to flee before he can warn the others. The attackers find the two young couples just sitting side by side, but they nonetheless bully and beat them with sticks. Bulbul and Bonny even get expelled from school for their supposedly scandalous behavior. Bonny can't live with the humiliation and commits suicide.
Once again, Das lets her own past color the story: The real Bonny was her best friend in college, Das said.
'The others ruin your life'
In the film's last scene,Bulbul is told not to listen to others because that might ruin her life; she is told to listen to what her heart tells her. It may sound like a corny ending, but in light of her own past, Das is serious about the advice.