There is a certain deliciousness to Bengali horror that is distinctly different from the Victorian gothic horror that our appetites have grown used to. Jump scares were never meant for Bengali stomachs, which have, historically, been somewhat tender. Bengali horror stories have had the bucolic charm of a moonless village courtyard, where the children gather around an old lady. The light of a single lamp illuminates the grey mud walls of the huts and the shadows of ancient trees instill a mounting sense of fear. This is the atmosphere that Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul invokes.
For a while now, Bollywood has been big on social messaging. Several recent films have had flat, feel-good, preachy dialogue that sounded like the actors were reading definitions off Wikipedia. Dutt has worked on Bollywood films in the past, such as Queen, which was one among the many preachy ones produced during this last decade. Bulbbul is Dutt’s directorial debut, however, and while it is progressive, its social messaging is achieved far more eloquently. Bulbbul does not claim to be a “feminist film” as some films (like Dangal) loudly proclaimed themselves to be. Nine out of ten times we have been disappointed, which is why it is refreshing that in some ways Bulbbul is more feminist than the self-proclaimed “feminist films.” Its feminism is not in-your-face but an organic outcome crafted in the process of making the film.
Bollywood’s track record with horror has been disastrous; if anything, this is a bit of an understatement. For an industry saturated in formula, most of the horror films could easily have doubled as comedy, they were so ludicrously written and shot (think 1924, Raaz and their ilk). Very few horror films have dug into indigenous mythology and folklore. Recently, in fact, only Pari and Stree (both 2018) have done so. You can see influences of Pari in Bulbbul in the way that it harnesses a legend and writes the story around it. This is not surprising, of course, since actor Anushka Sharma starred in Pari and produced Bulbbul. Stree also revolves around a folk legend but, while certainly one of the better films produced by Bollywood of late, is more horror-comedy than exclusively horror.
Interestingly, in all three films, the supernatural entities have been women, and all three plots reclaim the narrative of the “evil” women/witches/ghosts. It has been rather refreshing to see Hollywood/Victorian influences at last being shed by Bollywood. And Bulbbul is able to do this with a lot of grandeur because it is also a period film that is richly rooted in indigenous visual culture. But it isn’t a scary film in the traditional genre sense, because the real horror of Bulbbul is not supernatural. It’s patriarchal. Several scenes show explicit physical violence being inflicted on women, so in the world that Bulbbul builds, the supernatural need only be feared by abusive men.
For centuries, Bengali children have grown up singing songs about birds like the bulbul. And of course, birds have, in more than one culture, been a sign of freedom. So too is our protagonist, Bulbbul, whom we meet as a young girl climbing mango trees. She is about to be married into a wealthy zamindari (land-owning rural elite) family, and as her pishima (aunt) prepares her, attention is drawn to Bulbbul’s feet as she is made to wear toe-rings. The toe-rings, her aunt tells her, are to ground women. To control them. Otherwise, they tend to “fly off.”
Bulbbul grows up to be precisely that kind of wayward, novel-reading woman, who might also be swayed by the romance of fiction into having flying-off tendencies. This behavior is very unbecoming, especially since she is the badi-bahu, or the mistress of the household. This does not sit well with Binodini who is denied the badi-bahu honour, even though she is a lot older than Bulbbul, has been a member of the Chaudhary household for much longer and indeed has been sleeping with the thankur (lord) Indranil. Binodini is married to Indranil’s twin brother, Mahendra. But her marriage is unfulfilling because Mahendra is shown to have an intellectual disability. She envies Bulbbul her place as wife of the thakur and becomes the film’s primary antagonist.
The plot moves because of the friction between these two women as one tries to tame the other. Binodini is conformist, and a happily complicit perpetuator in the patriarchal, feudal family system that is her own oppressor. For her, the oppression is a reasonable trade-off for the wealth and respect the marriage brings. She constantly tries to undermine Bulbbul and slut-shames her. She also tries to manipulate the men against Bulbbul. Bulbbul on the other hand, is irreverent and almost aloof. She chases the thrill of stories and adventure with the youngest brother of the family, Satya—and these seemingly wayward desires are the ones that Binodini tries to curb. Their mannerisms reflect their polar positions: Binodini constantly fusses with her saree, adjusting her ghomta (veil). When Bulbbul is still a small child, Binodini fusses over her clothing as well, to make her presentable. Bulbbul is visibly comfortable in her skin. She doesn’t fidget with her saree once, and she even appears without her ghomta in the presence of “outsiders.” Of course, she is shamed for all of this, and when Bulbbul is rushing to spend time with her devar (brother-in-law) Satya, Binodini tells Bulbbul that it’s time for her to get new toe-rings.
But Bulbbul is not a woman to be controlled. Her relationship with Satya raises eyebrows, but they grew up telling each other stories of witches and ghosts. For a child forced into an alien household, this is the only comforting attachment she has been able to form. The ambiguity of this relationship might have been a bit of a nod to the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore who was rumored to be very close to his sister-in-law, who was married into the Tagore household in a similar manner.
When Bulbbul grows up, twenty years later, her husband, Indranil, is annoyed that she refuses to wear shoes. Here is the colonial masculine trying to bind the indigenous feminine. Bulbbul’s feet are very important to the story and the cinematography combines quite cleverly with the script to tell you this. It is her feet that give her the ability to go where she pleases, so it is her feet that are violently broken by Indranil who is driven into a mad frenzy because of Binodini’s insinuations about the nature of Satya and Bulbbul’s relationship. However, here the plot starts to fall apart as the story escalates too quickly. The punishment is a ludicrously disproportionate response to Bulbbul’s grief, when Satya is sent away to London. This is because Indranil as a character has not been developed at all. He is a mechanically reproduced stock Bengali patriarch—seemingly indulgent of Bulbbul’s idiosyncrasies while she is still a child, and forgiving of his own earlier indiscretions with Binodini, but not his wife’s more innocent inclinations.
Then the story starts to get really problematic. Mahendra, the twin brother, sneaks into Bulbbul’s bedroom at night, while she is still recovering from having her feet broken, and rapes her. Mahendra clearly suffers from an intellectual disability, but he exhibits extremely predatory behavior throughout the film, which is lightly brushed off as infantilism. It is quite distasteful how his condition is written as an excuse for his predatory behavior, because he wants to “play” and he thinks Bulbbul is a guria (doll). Especially since he runs back to Binodini, clutching his dhoti, knowing that he has done something he shouldn’t have. It is evident that no thought and sensitivity has been put into Mahendra’s character, and he is placed there for the sole purpose of being dehumanized so that the supernatural can be invited into the plot.
Bulbbul does not survive this onslaught of violence from the brothers. But the goddess Kali resurrects her. Women have often told themselves that they have within them an ocean of anger for all the times they have been violated and humiliated. Kali’s rage is legendary—she is the destroyer of worlds, after all. There are innumerable stories of the goddess being an embodiment of vengeful anger, turning everything into ash. But she is both a destroyer and a protector. Historically, Bengal has been home to a number of goddess cults and tantric cults, and the lines between goddesses and demonesses have remained rather porous in Bengali folklore. There might have been thousands of tribal deities, all of whom Brahmanical Hinduism would have labeled demons during the Vedic age. However, during the Puranic age, Brahmanical Hinduism began to appropriate these smaller deities for the orthodox Vedic pantheon. Each of these smaller tribal or pastoral goddesses became an avatar of the original Vedic deity, Shakti. It is therefore somewhat curious that the writers decided that the supernatural entity in Bulbbul should manifest in the form of a chudhail or a witch-ghost. The chudhail belongs to the Hindi heartland, and legend has it that they can be identified by their backward-facing feet. The chudhail’s feet are, of course, a sign of non-conformity, and I suspect this is why Bulbbul uses the chudhail rather than the innumerable other varieties of female ghosts available in Bengali folklore, such as petnis and shakchunnis.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Bulbbul is not a self-proclaimed “feminist film” and, goodness knows, we’ve been disappointed by a lot of those. But the one aspect where Bulbbul is unapologetically feminist is that it is a story of reckoning. The men face the consequences of their actions. The chudhail delivers justice. This justice is distinctly anti-establishment—outside the purview of both sanskaar (propriety) and colonial law. The law is one the few rare instances in the film when the British Raj is mentioned. When a several men are killed, the local petty police officer says, “the firangi kanoon (foreign law) only recognizes proof,” which is of course nowhere to be found, given that the murders were committed by the supernatural. The British Raj makes its presence felt in the form of a rationality that is distinctly masculine and colonial. It dismisses the chudhail as superstition because it sees the chudhail as an opposing, indigenous feminine force that lacks logical basis. The chudhail, however, outwits the colonial rationality by operating on her own sense of reason and justice.
Traces of the British Raj or the colonial masculine dominating the indegenous feminine can also be seen in the boots that Indranil’s violence forces Bulbbul to wear. She was reluctant to wear shoes before, but now she must wear boots to hide her disfigured feet. This is, however, just a small victory because Indranil leaves. He tells Binodini, “there’s nothing for me here,” and goes to Kolkata, abandoning his estate and his family. So, when the resurrected Bulbbul is restored to health, she starts to play thakur of the estate. After all she’s the badi-bahu and Mahendra is incapable of fulfilling the role. Frequently, she is reminded that it is not her place, especially by Binodini.
Twenty years later, when Satya returns from London, blissfully unaware of the violence his childhood companion has suffered, he behaves exactly like everyone else in the household, and tries to bring Bulbbul to heel. Bulbbul, of course, scoffs and tells him “You’re all the same.” This is in fact true—all the men in Bulbbul have basically been reduced to the same character. They’re petty, jealous, abusive, oppressive hypocrites who are rather full of themselves. Satya himself concedes to this when he writes to Indranil saying that he had always wanted to be like his brother but he’s afraid he has now become worse than his brother. Though I cannot deny that there is a certain pleasure to be had seeing the men pushed to the background, the reductive character building is a bit of a dampener. What also makes the whole plot rather simplistic is that Bulbbul retaliates only after she suffers extreme physical violence. The prolonged emotional and psychological violence that the women of upper caste Hindu families are subjected to becomes secondary. There are no “small revolutions” that could have added complexity to a film that had the potential to do a lot more.
The failings of the plot are especially a shame because of the standard that Bulbbul sets aesthetically and visually—it is like nothing else that Bollywood gothic horror has seen. Bollywood period drama has relied on anglicized ideas of beauty for the longest time, and in some instances, I’ve felt that filmmakers were almost ashamed to embrace Indian-ness as capable of having beauty. In Bulbbul, Anvita Dutt creates a proud visual language that rejects all things colonial—the clothes, the buildings and the people. This is perhaps a low bar, given Bollywood’s obsession with fair, light-skinned women, but Dutt has to be commended for casting women who are a shade of brown that is not often seen in leading roles. But judging simply by Bollywood standards, Bulbbul is a departure for both Bollywood horror and period dramas, and it has successfully taken the bar higher.