Binod Paudel, writer-director of the film Bulbul, is the campus chief of Nepal’s first film school, Oscar International College. Most of the films made by the college’s alumni have accrued accolades, not just locally but also globally. They have been critically acclaimed, and many-a-time, been commercially successful. Just think of think Loot, Chaadke, Kalo Pothi, and Katha 72. The college is rightly credited for helping usher in a new wave of Nepali cinema and many of its alumni are current industry leaders. With his students having achieved so much, Paudel must certainly have felt the pressure of expectations while making Bulbul.
Binod Paudel’s challenges can be broken down into the fundamentals of film–the content, form, and context. The content is the subject matter, along with the ideology, politics and message. It includes the story, setting, and also narrative–how the story unfolds. Form concerns how the individual elements of cinema have been used to convey the said politics. This includes Paudel’s vision in executing his film, his choice of actors and their performances, assembly of sequences, and background score. Context here is the current milieu and how it affects the story.
Bulbul’s content focusses entirely on Ranakala (Swastima Khadka), a tempo driver who is financially independent enough to support her paralysed father-in-law and send her child to boarding school. Her husband is a migrant worker who has been away for over six years, so Ranakala is sad and lonely. And when a charming regular passenger, Chopendra (Mukun Bhusal), confesses his love for her, she’s unable to reject his affection. Ranakala decides to start a new life with Chopendra but not all goes according to plan.
Written by Paudel himself, the film’s narrative is Ranakala’s perspective of the world. We are with Ranakala while she applies makeup, her sleepless nights, phone calls with her husband, and intimate moments with her lover. But despite all this, we never really connect with Ranakala. We can’t tell what she likes or dislikes and why she does the things she does. For instance, twice in the film, Ranakala is shown smoking in the nude at night. The scene repeats but there’s no follow up, so it feels random. The filmmaker does nothing to justify this rather interesting character trait. This is not an isolated example–the film is filled with scenes that seem disjointed or independent.
Paudel has the tools, but he never seems to use them. He has an array of rather interesting characters he could have used to convey Ranakala’s inner thoughts. One of her confidantes is a fellow tempo driver, Bhima (Laxmi Bardewa). However, every single time these women are seen together, they are discussing men. I cannot tell if this is Paudel’s ignorance of the Bechdel test (probably worth a google), or a statement that these women drivers only think and talk about men or sex.
Another character who is misused is Chopendra. Right before the interval, Paudel shows us Chopendra’s personal space when he invites Ranakala over. There, Chopendra sends his brother away, saying that Ranakala, is his future ‘sister-in-law’. This moment leads us to believe that Chopendra has feelings for her but logic be damned, Chopendra disappears, shocking not only Ranakala but also the audience. Why show us Chopendra’s emotions, if they’re not relevant to the story or to Ranakala?
Ranakala’s occupation has no bearing on the film whatsoever. She could have been any minimum wage worker looking for moments of love and happiness in between working the ruthless streets of Kathmandu. Her poverty, nursing a family member and falling for a man who gives her attention are all very generic tropes that make Ranakala seem like a caricature of a ‘low income but independent woman’.
The film, however, is well made. Each actor’s performance is Bulbul’s most shining quality. Most Nepali film actors don’t seem to forgo their theater or radio background, conveying a loudness reminisce of late 80s Hindi cinema. In this film, however, even though the actors scream at times, the performances aren’t theatrical. Swastima Khadka is terrific as Binod Paudel’s lead. Her conviction to the character has resulted in a performance for which Khadka will finally be recognised and remembered for. It’s evident that she’s done ample research—she’s confident with the safa tempo, toned down her mannerisms, and convincingly blends into the world set up for her. Her best moment comes when she is talking over the phone with her husband. In a single scene, she goes from angry to sad to desperate, and she does it seamlessly. Her co-star Mukun Bhusal as Chopendra does a good job too. Bhusal and Khadka have chemistry that will make the audience smile. However, Bhusal’s static grin and one-dimensional characterisation can sometimes feel overdone.
Director Binod Paudel and cinematographer Sushan Prajapati use the fly-on-the-wall approach, with as little camera movement as possible. The lighting, depth and composition are on point. The production design and locations too are well-designed and well-chosen, giving the film a beautiful, realistic tonality.
Water is a big feature in this film. Rainfall almost acts as a leitmotif, appearing time and again to heighten drama. But sadly, it serves little purpose besides repeatedly punctuating Khadka’s long brooding montages. The visual setting of the film is gritty and very real despite how it fails at generating empathy.
Paudel’s problems lie in the writing and story of the film, and it could be because this is a man attempting to convey a woman’s perspective. There are, however, exemplary films made by rich, powerful men telling poor women’s stories, like Roma a contender for the Oscars this year. However, Nepal’s Oscar (college) principal’s film is far from an exemplary story about women. In Bulbul, we don’t ever feel strongly for Ranakala. And the ending makes things worse, by leaving Ranakala helpless and deceived by yet another man she trusted. The ambiguous ending doesn’t help, alluding that Ranakala’s life will remain what it has always been–sad and pathetic–exactly how Paudel portrays her throughout the film.
Films like Bulbul, with strong female leads, however, need to be promoted. In an industry where the supposed ‘superstar’, Anmol KC, is portrayed making comments comparing a woman’s body parts to a football, Bulbul is a respectable film. The film’s problem is with its content, but its treatment is a breath of fresh air. The lazy plots, redundant narratives, loud theatrical acting, and a safe, non-experimental approach to filmmaking are industry shackles that Bulbul successfully breaks.
Because of the film’s excellent execution, filmmakers, especially Paudel’s own students, are bound to follow his example. But young impressionable filmmakers should remain cautious–the heart and soul of your film is the story, not just style.