'These are cautionary tales, warning you to grow up fast, to be aware of the world around you and make sure that there are no wolves hiding in the shadows.'
Lyricist-writer Anvita Dutt says her directorial debut Bulbbul is heavily influenced by her childhood years that were either spent in the unrestricted company of books or sharing stories of ghosts and witches with other children during the summer holidays.
Such was her love for fairy tales that Dutt has 'Once upon a time' tattooed on her hand.
This is why her first film, a coming-of-age story of a woman set in the late 19th century Bengal, with a modern spin on the legend of 'chudail' (witch), is rooted in her childhood.
"It's about your childhood, summer holidays, when your grandmother put out the manji (cot) and children gathered to hear a kooky little tale. Sometimes you made up the story and sometimes others told you about avoiding a certain peepal tree because a ghost lives there.
"That kind of folklore, fairytale telling of story is something that I always loved. That's why when I wrote a story for myself to direct, I ended up writing a story that starts with 'Once upon a time...'," Dutt tells Bedika/PTI in an interview over a Zoom call.
Dutt, who spent 15 years as a lyricist and dialogue writer in Hindi cinema and worked on films like Heyy Babyy, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Dostana, Patiala House and Queen, said she gravitated towards the dark interpretation of a fairy tale, not the vanilla version where everything appears pretty.
She said she rooted for "possibly the wrong people" like the stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood.
"We are fed this vanilla fairy tales from which all the dark and gruesome elements are taken out and they are presented in this pretty song and dance format...
"But I was always drawn to the dark story, the messaging. These are cautionary tales, warning you to grow up fast, to be aware of the world around you and make sure that there are no wolves hiding in the shadows and that's what appealed to me," she said.
Recalling her childhood spent in cantonments with beautiful libraries, Dutt said there was no one censoring "a little girl walking around reading books from 'A to Z'" as she waited for her father, who worked in the Indian Air Force, to pick her up.
"I was reading fairy tales the way they were meant to be read and not the way they were told to children and that creeps into your own stories," she said.
Bulbbul, produced by Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh Sharma's Clean Slate Filmz, 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.
Lore about witches abound in every culture but superstition has often led women to be victims of such stories, which always bothered Dutt.
"When a woman frightens a man, they turn around and brand her as something that's frightening and horrible. It's the old wives' tale so the collective gathers and rises against it. What they are rising against is power and they are afraid of it," she said about presenting a new perspective on the legend.
Dutt went through a lot of research to create the beautiful fable-like world of Bulbbul and the Bengal of that era and that reflects on the screen be it the beautiful Benarasi saris, colourful wallpaper or the 'baadis' (houses).
She said the idea was to make every frame appear like a Raja Ravi Varma painting. In fact, Varma's Jatayu Vadham makes an appearance in a crucial scene in the movie.
The design elements, she said, were inspired by British designers and decorators William Morris and Robert Adams, who had a great influence on the neo-classical period.
"There was a part of the community that wore Jamdani saris and some wore handmade cotton saris but Thakuranis always wore Benarasi saris. These are the details that I enjoy including in my stories. I love the neo-classical period, it reflected in the art and architecture of Bengal.
"William Morris and Robert Adams heavily influenced me and my production designer Meenal (Agarwal) and DOP (Director of Photography) Siddharth Diwan. The intention was that it should feel like that if we touch the screen, we will come away with paint on our fingertips," she said.
Whether it was art, architecture, crockery, paintings or the old 'baadis' (houses) with their Venetian columns and louvered windows, Dutt said Bengal best reflected the neo-classical period in India.
"I really love Bengal. I must have been a Bengali in my past life. My next film is also set there," Dutt added.
Meanwhile, Anushka Sharma says that as a producer, she will continue to champion stories like Bulbbul that show strong and independent women on the screen.
The film completes her trilogy of supernatural stories with female protagonists in central roles after Pari and Phillouri.
'The idea that Clean Slate Filmz would one day create a genre of our own was never an intentional move by us. We, however, always wanted to create a style of story-telling that celebrates women and their spirit,' Anushka stated.
'We always wanted to show strong, independent women to audiences through cinema and Bulbbul is our new offering in this regard. Portrayal of women in our cinema has always been skewed and lopsided," the actress added.
'I felt that as an actress, and I decided that I will correct this as much as I can through my productions,' Anushka said.
The 32-year-old actor, who decided to turn producer at the age of 25, said she is happy with the love for Bulbbul as she and her brother 'really put our necks on the line to make projects that we hope will be clutter-breaking'.
To be called 'daring and adventurous' for their efforts has been a real validation as producers, said Anushka.
'Karnesh and I aren't scared storytellers. We make each project thinking we have nothing to lose. We are non-conformists and that's what has really, really helped us to explore and create. It is a huge milestone moment for us at Clean Slate Filmz because both Pataal Lok and now Bulbbul have got great reviews and janta ka appreciation,' Anushka said.
She will continue to back talented film-makers like Anvita Dutt, Sudip Sharma, Prosit Roy, Avinash Arun, Anshai Lal as their 'bold cinematic voices need to be heard'.
'Clean Slate Filmz has always been home to really talented first time writers, directors, musicians and actors looking to make a mark in cluttered Bollywood and we have tried to do our best to bring their geniuses on screen with every single project.'