It’s a great year for Clean Slate Films, actress Anushka Sharma’s boutique film production house, which she co-founded and runs with her brother Karnesh Ssharma. After the grand success of the riveting crime thriller Paatal Lok, everyone is eagerly awaiting the release of their next project, Netflix original film ‘Bulbbul.’
Bulbbul is a dark and unsettling period drama which is no less than any child’s bedtime story. Starring the Laila Majnu pair Avinash Tiwary and Tripti Dimri, the film is set in a fantastical village in Bengal during a time when the zamindari system and malpractices like child marriage were prevalent. Tiwary plays Satya, a young man who, upon his return from England after many years, realises that his elder brother’s child bride Bulbbul (played by Dimri) is now the local village saviour. Meanwhile, some men around the area seem to be mysteriously meeting their end at the hands of a ‘chudail.’ True vision or rural myth? And how is the legend related to his family?
That is something that you will have to watch Bulbbul on Netflix to find out, but what we do know is that debutante director Anvita Dutt (who has had a prolific career as a lyricist and screenwriter which includes titles like Dostana, Queen, and Phillauri) has treated the film with a visceral and evocative style. One which has been brought to life with the help of the film’s producers. LetsOTT caught up with her and Karnesh on a very special Zoom call to talk about the journey of Bulbbul from script to (streaming) screen.
Q. Anvita and Karnesh, how did this collaboration come about?
A: I wrote the script for Bulbbul almost 10 years ago, for the joy of it. At the time, Karnesh was not a part of the film industry... he was in the merchant navy. But we had been friends for a while and had an interest in similar themes and stories. Like you do with friends, I asked him to read this one I had been working on. He read the script for fun and said, “if and when I turn producer, I want to produce this film.”
K: We’re whiskey buddies who would talk about quantum physics and astronomy. That’s where this collaboration started. This is even before Anvita worked with Anushka (Sharma) on Patiala House. When she shared this script with me, it gave me that feeling of a fantastical fable and I immediately took to it. But it was only after NH10 that I asked Anushka to give it a read. I told her that this could be something really interesting for our production house, and thankfully, she agreed.
Q. It’s been a long journey for Bulbbul from when it was first penned to its release in 2020. Are you happy with how it’s turned out?
A: I’m really happy that Bulbbul took the time that it did because in the meantime, I wrote a lot and inculcated the storytelling ability within myself. I also worked with Clean Slate in the capacity of a dialogue writer and lyricist (on Phillauri) which was imperative. We’d all been friends for a while, but this was our chance to engage with each other professionally. By the time we were ready to start working on Bulbbul, Karnesh, Anushka and I were so in-sync, that the vision we had for the film was one that we’d figured out in a collective.
When I wrote Bulbbul, Tripti was in school (laughs). I was waiting for Karnesh to become a producer and Tripti to graduate and then move to Mumbai and become an actress, so that I could audition her and cast her as ‘Bulbbul.’
K: Anvita has far-sight (laughs).
Q. Bulbbul deals with a sensitive subject packaged within a niche theme but it’s by no means a small movie. Did you not think at any point that it should be a theatrical release?
K: We look at the process of filmmaking a bit differently than perhaps other production houses. The business aspect of a film comes much later than the story. We have certain obligations to our crew and other investors, of course. But irrespective of how Bulbbul would have been released, the mounting of the film wouldn’t have changed. We actually had this discussion long ago, the three of us, that we would make the film only when we had partners who were as excited about the story and whose involvement would do justice to the visual language of the film. Netflix gave us a free hand after we were greenlit, but they also provided us with the right resources for production. We’re very happy that Bulbbul is a Netflix release.
Q. The film is so specific in its look, from the setting to the costume, but especially in terms of lighting and production design. Was that always the case or did those ideas come around as and when you were filming?
A: To a large extent, the look and feel of the film is on paper. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I wanted the film to look like, and Karnesh and Anushka really pushed me to ask for what I envisioned. The team was curated later - Siddharth Diwan (Director of Photography), Meenal Agarwal (Production Designer), Veera Kapur Ee (Costume Designer) and Red Chillies VFX. I always give strange references (and not film references which is the most common ask). I would give them ‘Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings’ and ‘Caravaggio’s lighting,’ ‘Robert Adams’ neoclassical ceilings,’ etc. for reference. The best part was that everyone understood what I’m talking about. Whatever this film looks like now is their collaborative effort, because they’ve taken my ideas to the next level.
K: Meenal, Veera and Anvita had a gang and they would meet up in the office to discuss sarees - “ye saree wall pe use hogi,” (this saree will be used on the wall), “this saree will be used in that scene,” and the minuteness and richness of that vision really shows. But that discussion had become so overwhelming that Anshai (Lal, Creative Producer) and Siddharth and I would collectively say - “bhai saree bohot ho gayi… ab saree ki baat nahin kar sakte.” (We’ve had enough conversation on sarees, no more). They’ve certainly brought our feminine side out and now we know about design, fabric and texture (laughs). But on a serious note, I really give all the credit for the look of the film to the team because the script and their vision was so descriptive that it became easy to execute.
Q. Laila Majnu wasn’t a big hit but Avinash and Tripti were appreciated by audiences and critics, not just for their individual work but for their chemistry as well. Was that the thought behind their casting as ‘Satya’ and ‘Bulbbul?’
A: Their casting is a funny story. We have Casting Bay as our casting agency and we had been auditioning for ‘Bulbbul’ and ‘Satya’ for about two months. I received Avinash’s (Tiwary) audition tape and loved it. The day I was to meet him for a follow-up is the day that I saw Tripti’s (Dimri) audition. I was still looking at other tapes but I did see the vulnerability to her performance where she had a twitch to her hand even with the most confident demeanour. It was such a ‘Bulbbul’ thing to do! Karnesh added that she even looked like the character, like that painting I had thought of. When I met Avinash, we started chatting and he asked me who was playing the titular character. I mentioned her name and he was pleasantly surprised about being cast opposite her again and I was very confused. I hadn’t even seen Laila Majnu! So it was completely coincidental to get them on screen together again so quickly.
K: Only Anshai was aware of Laila Majnu and he had seen it when it was released. The rest of us saw the film post the audition and casting. In a way, it’s a good thing because Tripti is at that stage where she is constantly transforming as a performer and by look every few months. From the time she made her debut to the actual filming process of Bulbbul to now, she doesn’t seem like the same person. You will really see a new side to her here, nothing like Laila Majnu.
Q. As filmmakers, what are the opportunities that you see opening up due to the influx and popularity of streaming platforms?
K: Streaming platforms give us opportunities as filmmakers to tell unconventional stories, and also not to get tied down by the expectations attached to films which have traditionally released theatrically. Netflix is such a big company, they have all the resources to put in even into smaller films in terms of mounting to reach. Our film will be released in 190 countries and dubbed in many national and international languages. How is that any less than a film which is released at the cinema? I suspect that in the future, especially owing to the kind of films being made by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron amongst others, our outlook towards OTT platforms will change significantly. We will realise how these channels have enabled the films that weren’t possible within the studio system. It’s a boon for filmmakers as well as the audience who get to savour the stories.
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