In an industry prone to profit from escapism, Nepali cinema has suddenly started coming out with movies that portray the reality of life with all its ugly truths.

The latest is Bulbul, a film with a straightforward plot, ordinary characters and portraying contemporary Nepal where issues like gender, patriarchy, migration, joblessness, health care, and the struggle to survive are all intertwined.

This is not about 2 hours of dancers gyrating to the pulse of masala film songs, but a chronicle of the life of Ranakala (Swastima Khadka) who drives a tempo in Kathmandu’s busy and narrow streets. Her husband went to Saudi Arabia to work, but has not returned for six years and cannot send money home. She lives in a dingy flat taking care of her paralysed father-in-law. Ranakala has a daughter too, but has placed her child in a boarding school so that she can have a brighter future.

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Bulbul is written and directed by Binod Paudel, principal of Oscar International College of Film Studies which has produced quite a few film-makers of the New Wave of Nepali Cinema.

A lead character like Ranakala is a novelty in Nepali films, which usually have exaggerated personas, unrealistic romances and facile characters. In Ranakala, however, director Paudel taps into the story of struggle and the complex emotions of a Nepali woman's life.

Bulbul has a character driven plot, and Swastima Khadka's authentic portrayal of Ranakala is refreshing and captivates. Her hardships are writ large in her sombre expressions and sharp dialogues which give us a nuanced, all-round portrait of her complex psychology. One can't help but root for this simple, independent girl as she makes a living in a difficult city. She is fierce at her job, tender as a mother, understanding as a friend, struggling as a wife. But overall Ranakala embodies the female shakti.  

Since migration has become such an important facet of the lives of Nepalis today, it is inevitable that it figures prominently in contemporary Nepali music videos and movies. But in Bulbul, Paudel tackles a new figure in the equation -- the impact of migration on the wives men leave behind at home.

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Ranakala speaks to her husband through ear pods as she drives her tempo, pleading that he come home, speaking frankly about their relationship. Paudel is subtle, but searing as he shows us the toll migration is taking on women – a tale repeated hundreds of thousands of times in homes across Nepal.

The supporting cast is also competently natural, elevating the movie's authenticity. Mukunda Bhushal as Chopendra provides both comic relief and  is refreshing as an anti-hero character that veers from the traditional perception of a lead actor in Nepali movies. Ranakala's co-drivers demonstrate a camaraderie that sustains them through difficult times, perhaps through the knowledge that they are suffering together.

Ranakala's dismal habitation and its overwhelming silence, always with a backdrop of monsoon rain, poignantly accentuate her lonely struggle. Bulbul gets more intense as the plot thickens, as unpredictably as life often does. We don't know what will happen to Ranakala and what decisions she will make, but we want to understand her psyche because Paudel builds our intimacy with her in a way that makes us co-travellers in her life.

Bulbul does not have any unnecessary drama, it is a candid immersion into contemporary Nepal through a woman’s eyes. Paudel has redefined what a heroine is in Nepali cinema: not just a pretty lady dancing to a superficial romance, but an individual trying to stay afloat after being thrown off the deep end of life.