The Interview: Anvita Dutt

Ever since Bulbbul released, writer-director Anvita Dutt is living on Zoom calls, albeit happily. A poster of Bimal Roy’s Bandini, antique wooden furniture, and her crisp sarees are three constants during her Zoom calls. According to Dutt, every script she writes, has a supernatural element to it. Though the world is itching to step out and meet people, she is happy being home. And when asked about the story of Bulbbul, Dutt is quick to point out that the film has a lot more context than what is visible on screen. She says that some fairytales may be happy, and some may be scary, but you need to stand up for yourself, and fight your own battles. No one else is going to fight them for you.

How are you taking all the praise coming your way?

The first feeling is that of relief. The second is that of gratitude. Despite being a first-time director, many people have put their faith in me, from Anushka and Karnesh Sharma, to the actors, to my department. They had immense belief in my script, and my vision. The love that the film is receiving has reassured the makers and the crew that they bet on the right horse.

Was it always supposed to be a Netflix release?Did you ever think about the theatrical release?

Bulbbul was always supposed to be a Netflix Original, so the theatrical release never came into consideration. It is a dream for any director to have their film release in the theatres, but the Friday Fear of the box office is also legit. We did not have the pressure of the box ošce, but we did have the pressure of the audience liking the film. But, with all the praises coming our way, the team is happy that their hard work paid off.

You started off as a lyricist first, so was it tougher to get a break as a lyricist, or as a director?

Honestly, the credit of me being a writer/ lyricist goes to Aditya Chopra. He was the one who announced to me: You are a lyricist. You are just not aware. You are a writer (laughs). I had written some dummy lyrics for him, and his response was: “Yeh dummy lyrics nahin hai. Ye toh actual lyrics hain.” That’s how I became a lyricist. It was like some fairytale. Just magical. The journey to becoming a director was long and hard. I wrote Bulbbul a decade back, and I had always intended to direct. But it took some time. However, when I look back, it appears as if all of it just happened overnight. Karnesh was on board as a producer literally in the same week that I wrote the film. Though he was not a producer back in the day. So, for me, everything just fell into place.

You come across as a person who feels life is filled with magic. What is the reason behind this positivity?

Yes, I believe life is magical. Even the practical, rational, day-to-day life is filled with wonder and magic. What is there not to love? But, I do not believe in fairytales. Some things in life are cruel and hard, but that does not make it any less magical.

I felt Bulbbul was more about the horrific realities of life, and not a horror film. How much of it was organic, and how much of it was by design?

Yes, it is about the horrific realities of life. The strange thing about writing, in general, is that it is a craft, and a lot of hard work goes into it. It’s literally labour. Though, in the beginning, when you conceive the story, it is magic, which is neither craft nor engineering of any sort. One cannot engineer a story. The story will come to you, and it will take shape. You can engineer a script, but not a story. The story of this film came to me with various images and moments. I just sat down to write it. Then came the hard part of turning it into a script. I rolled up my sleeves, made sense of the images and moments, so that it could be made into a script. A lot of craftsmanship goes into it. The fact that the film has so much of subtext is proof that it was not engineered. It just happened. They always say write what about you know. You can write a fairytale, but that has to be even more real. The emotions have to be so real that it will make you believe in the fairy tale. You cannot work on a story thinking it will be fantastical, and also feminist. You just write the story.

The film has a bold red colour palette, from its background to its costumes. What did you want the colour red to signify?

In terms of colour therapy, the colour red stands for anger, blood, and power. In the Indian context, red not only represents marriage, but also divinity. We offer red flowers to gods, we apply red teeka on the forehead. So, red signifies power. To me, it is the colour that brings all these things together. When a terrible thing happens to Bulbbul, the moon is eclipsed as a shadow falls on it, turning it into the blood moon. Obviously, it is visually exaggerated, but the colour red plays an integral part in conveying the metaphors in the story.

Your protagonist is shown to stand up for herself and fight her own battles despite all the patriarchy and misogyny.

Yes, because she does not need a saviour. I do not believe in the kind of fairytales where a prince comes on a white horse to rescue the princess. No matter how spunky the princess is, she always seems to be a damsel in distress that needs saving. I firmly believe that we all are capable and should be responsible for our actions. We need to be our own saviours.

The physical and sexual abuse that takes place in the film is very graphic. Was it your intention to make the audience recoil?

When you are showing a violent sequence of a particular kind, you have the choice of showing it in various ways. You can choose the gory way, or else you can show it from a distance. One of the best examples was in the film Mom, directed by Ravi Udyawar. While the heinous act is taking place in the back of a car, all he shows is the car being driven, while the camera is far away. It is one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed. So, you can communicate tragedy by not showing the act at all. In my film, I needed to show it, because it was a revelation. Because the film is not a whodunit but howdunit. This incident is the character-defining scene for Bulbbul. I needed to show the tragedy, but I also needed to highlight the actions of the men to set up the said tragedy. Like in the beating scene, Indraneil lifts the fire-poker, and strikes it. All you see is blood dripping from the fire-poker. After that, we see Bulbbul wincing in pain. Her confusion and her horror are up close for the audience to feel. I did not voyeuristically go into the beating, but you can feel the aftermath of the act. It is a very graphic scene; the only difference is I have focused on the pain on her face. Similarly, in the scene with Mahendra, I do not show his face lusting after her. I stayed with Bulbbul, her pain, her fight, her fear and her feet. If you watch closely, you will realise there is no skin show. Yet, you get the feeling that it is graphic. All I am doing is showing the pain of the victim. People usually shy away from watching pain. The intention was to make the audience feel her pain and her helplessness.

Two people whose performances completely stood out were Tripti Dimri (Bulbbul) and Parambrata Chatterjee (Dr Sudip). How was it working with them?

Dimri is a revelation. She is an incredibly talented actor, and the best part is that she is humble. She works really hard on her craft, and yet manages to give an effortless performance. By the way, her first take is usually an OK take. We sometimes took a second take because of continuity or if there was any noise in the background. Chatterjee was pitch-perfect from the moment he came on board. He agreed to be a part of it because of the equation he shares with Clean Slate Filmz, and me. I am just glad I was able to pay it back. He got the nuance of the renaissance man so beautifully. He is gentle, intelligent, very bright and very amused at how people can be so stupid. He was the Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bulbbul.

Now that you have are a film director, will you no longer write songs for other films?

I am totally a director, but I love writing songs. So, for my music directors, producers and directors, I will always be a lyricist. If I am not working on any of my films and if there is a fun project with my friends or if someone I know wants me to write dialogues, I would be game. But, yes, I am a film director now.

As a director, will you tell another lyricist writing for your film, what to write?

No, no, no. My HODs and partners will agree that I never tell anyone what to do. Everyone knows their job and how to do it. In fact, I have promised Kausar Munir, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Varun Grover, and Swanand Kirkire that each one of them will write a song in my film. I will have all their names in the credits of the film. It will be so much fun. We are all friends, and I can never tell them what to do. We even have a WhatsApp group wherein if we ever get stuck on a song, we put it out there and help each other out. So every song that we write, each one of us has suggested some word or some phrase that only we know about.

The current debate in the industry is about the misuse of power, and nepotism. What is your take on it?

The power struggle is everywhere. It happens in kindergarten, at a construction site, and every other place of work. It is human nature to struggle for power. Personally, I have not faced it, because then I would not be where I am today. I would not have written more than 100 songs. We get work based on the success or failure of our last released song. If we write a good song, we get more work, and vice versa. This is how it is, with writers. You are cast for your talent and merit, not on your gender or on who your father is.

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