Anvita Dutt believes all stories start with ‘Once upon a time’. One of Bollywood’s leading lyricists and dialogue writers who debuts as a director with supernatural thriller Bulbbul, tattooed these words on her right arm while working on her first film, Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008).
Dutt went on to write for many more mainstream films but deep down she was influenced by her childhood memories of “cautionary, darker” fairy tales, and her first film is a fantastical 19th century tale with its roots in folklore set in and shot in Bengal that explores and humanises the concept of ‘chudail’ (witch) while giving it a contemporary twist. Bulbbul features Tripti Dimri in the lead alongside Avinash Tiwary, Parambrata Chatterjee, Paoli Dam and Rahul Bose.
“I started writing the story about a decade ago for the joy of it, and only after writing it did the thought of directing it came to my mind. I felt so deeply connected to it that I didn’t want to give it to someone else to direct. I was in advertising till I was 35 after which I got a break in movies. I came as a newcomer, as a trainee into the film industry. I learnt on the job. Whatever I have done so far was other people’s stories and vision and I did all of that with great passion. I had never written for myself and for the first time in my life I felt that I will turn director to tell this story. Most of my own stories are these types. It comes from childhood, those cautionary tales — ‘Don’t sleep under that peepul tree in the night’; ‘Don’t go in that lane, there she comes.’ These kinds of stories have always appealed to me. But even as it is a fairy tale the issues are contemporary,” says Dutt.
“I grew up in the 70s,” she furthers, “These days you have access to any newly launched book but in the 70s, I discovered libraries at a very young age. I started reading a lot, whether it was beautiful literature, or just fun pulp, fantasy stories or true fairy tales, I drew inspiration from all of these. It gives you imagination and changes you without even you realising it. I found libraries and because of libraries I discovered the joy of storytelling.”
Dutt, who spent 15 years as a lyricist and dialogue writer in Hindi cinema and worked on films such as Heyy Baby, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Dostana, Housefull, Ek Tha Tiger, Student Of The Year (1 and 2), Queen, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Veere Di Wedding among many others, said, she was always gravitated towards the dark interpretation of a fairytale and not the vanilla or the ‘Disney-fied’ version where everything appears pretty.
“If you read those fairytales, they are dark and slightly scary. If someone said there was a woman walking in that lane, and I would ask ‘But why?’. I was always interested in knowing about the marginalised, the misunderstood one and that led me to write a story like Bulbbul,” says the writer-director. Produced by Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, Bulbbul is about a child bride who grows up to be an enigmatic woman presiding over her household. She is harbouring a painful past while supernatural murders of men plague her village.
“These are basically cautionary tales telling girls that don’t shut your eyes, don’t spend your life sleeping because you may wake up holding a child in your hand,” says Dutt while quoting the ‘original’ Sleeping Beauty story. “So there is inherent darkness [in Bulbbul] but there is also a message. Fairy tales have teeth and claws and that is what Bulbbul is. It is a fairy tale with teeth,” she says, further adding, “But it is quite surprising that despite the fact we grew up with this genre it is being considered new-age. On our terrace, chhath, aangan, in oral tradition, this genre has existed forever in India. Your aunt, your grandmother.. they would tell you these stories so that you don’t run around in the night. It may have existed in our literature as well but cinema strangely hasn’t done it, so I will do it,” says Dutt with a laugh.
The film was shot two-and-a-half hours outside of Kolkata and the director went through a lot of research to create the fable-like world of Bulbbul. Whether it was art, architecture, crockery, paintings, or the old houses with their Venetian columns and louvered windows, Bengal best reflected the neo-classical period in India, says Dutt.
“Because it’s a fairy tale, I wanted to set it in a world like that, and for me, the neoclassical era of Bengal had a fairy tale-like quality… the architecture, the art and the aesthetics of that time, the costumes, the detailing, the crockery… the neoclassical period was beautiful in Bengal. The setting became like a piece of jewellery to my story. My brief to the team was that every frame should appear like a freshly painted Raja Ravi Varma painting, and if someone were to touch the screen, their fingers should be smeared with colour,” says Dutt.
“Also, my connection, starting right from my producer, to each crew member, my DOP (director of photography), my production designer, was magical. Every person I was surrounded with was exactly on the same wavelength. I would look across in the room and they would just nod, so they know what I am thinking. That is the magic of working with people who belong to your tribe, as the American writer Kurt Vonnegut would say that people have a karass, and that karass if you find is very rare,” she concludes.
Bulbbul is now available on Netflix.