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Trigger warning: mentions of sexual violence

Major spoilers ahead

In recent times, Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films has emerged as an ambassador for producing ‘woke’ content. First she produced NH10 and Pari, both of which were dark thrillers critiquing patriarchy and violence against women. This was followed by Paatal Lok which was a radical commentary on casteism, patriarchy, fake news and the general state of affairs in the country. With Bulbbul, she has come full circle with yet another dark fantasy with loaded social critiques (I think Phillauri is the only light-hearted film in her roster). This is not to suggest that Ms. Sharma’s productions are flawless but she deserves due credit for coming into her own and promoting indie talent in what is a male-dominated and insider-driven industry. 

The premise of Bulbbul is as follows: Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), a child bride in 19th century Bengal married to the much older Thakur Moshai (Rahul Bose, in his comeback as the crush for all ages), develops an infatuation for her brother-in-law Satyendra (Avinash Tiwary, a sweet reunion for Laila Majnu fans). Satyendra is closer to Bulbbul than her husband both in terms of age and common interests. However, he is predictably sent abroad to study law in England—the colonial equivalent of the prodigal son going to do MBA in the States. He returns home to find that his brother has abandoned Bulbbul, a witch is allegedly hunting down the men of his village and that he is competing with the handsome Doctor Sudip (Parambrata Chatterjee, forever the puppy-faced alternate romantic interest since Kahaani) for Bulbbul’s affections. 

I’ve noticed that on an average, male reviewers have been more critical of the film than female ones. I say on an average, before anybody cherry picks exceptions. The reason for this is apparent once you watch the film. Bulbbul is basically a feminist revenge fantasy. It’s ‘All Men Are Cancelled‘ with a touch of folklore horror. Like Maleficient, the movie subverts the patriarchal trope of the ‘witch’ by reimagining the villainess as a wronged woman. I’m not saying men cannot like the film, but it will definitely make a lot of cisgender-heterosexual men uncomfortable.

I’ve noticed that on an average, male reviewers have been more critical of the film than female ones. I say on an average, before anybody cherry picks exceptions. The reason for this is apparent once you watch the film. Bulbbul is basically a feminist revenge fantasy. It’s ‘All Men Are Cancelled‘ with a touch of folklore horror. Like Maleficient, the movie subverts the patriarchal trope of the ‘witch’ by reimagining the villainess as a wronged woman. I’m not saying men cannot like the film, but it will definitely make a lot of cisgender-heterosexual men uncomfortable.

The entire setting of the film is reminiscent of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s tales about the Bengali upper-caste housewife, who has a world full of luxuries on the outside but is stifled on the inside. Trapped with a husband who fails to understand her sensitive personality and creative potential, she seeks out affection, and more importantly, understanding in a younger, less overpowering man. The film depicts the horrors of upper caste colonial Bengali patriarchy in full form-including the practice of enforced widowhood. You also see how the need to compete for the affections of the ‘master’ of the household drives women within the joint family to be cruel to each other. 

It’s true that the storyline of the film is predictable. You know the moment you see Bulbbul’s smirking, mysterious face when Satyendra returns from London that she is no longer the innocent girl he left behind. You also know why the witch is stalking her victims. The origin of the witch and her exact powers—what does she eat? Is she immortal? What are her weaknesses?—are never explained. Yet any woman watching the film is likely to experience an odd sense of satisfaction in watching the witch hunt her prey. 

Image Source: NDTV

Where the film really subverts tropes is in its treatment of the dynamic between Bulbbul and Satya. The trailer of the film suggests that Satya is the romantic male lead. It is common in stories featuring the ‘possession’ of a hapless and/or fallen woman for a Satya-like figure to swoop in and ‘save’ the heroine with the ‘redeeming’ power of his love. He ticks off all the checkboxes—he is the handsome, well-educated, cultured babu returned from abroad, and is initially the only man who hasn’t been unkind to the protagonist.

However, you know it’s a red flag when Satya treats Bulbbul’s newly assumed position as the ‘Mistress’ of the house condescendingly, as if she is only playing a game. When he later sees that Bulbbul is openly flirting with her doctor, the inbuilt need to assert his patriarchal authority as the only remaining man in the house openly rears its ugly head. He brings back his widowed sister-in-law into the mansion so that she can keep an eye on Bulbbul, implicitly takes control over the administration of the estate, and chides her for not using a veil in front of the doctor. Subsequently when he, horrors of horrors, sees Bulbbul and the doctor sharing a smoke, he writes to his brother suggesting that Bulbbul be sent back to her maternal home as a punishment. Bulbbul bitterly quips, ‘You all are the same’. Satya’s character is a warning to never trust the Woke Bois—they’re the ones who disappoint the most. 

Instead, it is the charming Doctor Sudip who appears more sympathetic as a romantic interest. Sudip and Bulbbul’s relationship primarily revolves around him taking care of her feet. The symbolism is subtle—a man who willingly surrenders himself at the feet of a woman is more trustworthy than the rest. This is amplified when we later discover that Bulbbul has been possessed by the spirit of the goddess Kali. 

However, what is truly debatable in the film—and here’s where I come to the crux of my critique—is the use of rape as a plot device. Bulbbul’s feet are literally curtailed by her husband when he has a violent fit of jealousy over her affection for Satya. While she lies paralyzed in bed, Bulbbul’s mentally ill brother-in-law rapes her and unintentionally suffocates her to death in the process. In an unexplained turn of mysticism, the heroine is possessed by a spirit from the nearby Kaali temple, leading to her transformation into the ‘witch’. 

However, what is truly debatable in the film—and here’s where I come to the crux of my critique—is the use of rape as a plot device. Bulbbul’s feet are literally curtailed by her husband when he has a violent fit of jealousy over her affection for Satya. While she lies paralyzed in bed, Bulbbul’s mentally ill brother-in-law rapes her and unintentionally suffocates her to death in the process. In an unexplained turn of mysticism, the protagonist is possessed by a spirit from the nearby Kaali temple, leading to her transformation into the ‘witch’. 

Also read: Female Vigilantism in Indian Cinema: A Review Of Films

First of all, the use of the ‘mentally ill sexual predator’ trope is borderline offensive though it is undoubtedly a reality in our country that close relatives rape women and children, and that such crimes are silenced to protect the family ‘honour’. Secondly, to what extent is it necessary to feature a rape scene to make a point about violence against women? The domestic violence perpetrated against Bulbbul was in itself traumatic enough to trigger her ‘transformation’ into an avenging spirit, if such a trigger was required. Why was it necessary to work an extended rape scene into the picture? In such a context, is not using rape as a story point an act of denial?

Finally, in her avatar as the ‘witch’, Bulbbul symbolises the recurring trope of the avenging ‘Kaali Maa’. In a haunting scene, Doctor Sudip corrects Satya on the usage of the word ‘chudail’ while referring to her and says that she is actually a devi or goddess. A victim of child sexual abuse who is saved by Bulbbul says the same thing. In the film’s climax, Bulbbul is seemingly burnt to death in a forest fire started by Satya though her apparition re-materializes to haunt Thakur Moshai when he returns home.

Image Source: The Print

The reinforcement of the conservative, carceral rhetoric about rape couldn’t be clearer. Basically rape victims just can’t get a break. They must die or turn psychotic, their rapists must also die and the only way in which their death serves any purpose is to propagate a masculinist culture of carceral punishment/death penalty against men. Of course, in the process they are elevated from being ordinary women to goddesses and role models for the rest of womankind. 

It can be argued that in Bulbbul, it is not the State which is carrying out violence but the protagonist herself, and to that extent it is justifiable. In a way, films like Bulbbul act as cultural ‘safety valves’ for women to vent our anger at the patriarchal stronghold over legal and societal institutions. The instant gratification we experience when we see Bulbbul taking revenge distracts us from how in real life, securing their basic liberties is often a frustrating and long-drawn ordeal for most women. In this sense, Bulbbul is far more radical than a Thappad, which is more acceptable to mainstream sensibilities.

The reinforcement of the conservative, carceral rhetoric about rape couldn’t be clearer. Basically rape victims just can’t get a break. They must die or turn psychotic, their rapists must also die and the only way in which their death serves any purpose is to propagate a masculinist culture of carceral punishment/death penalty against men. Of course, in the process they are elevated from being ordinary women to goddesses and role models for the rest of womankind. 

Thappad features a virtuous, self-sacrificing, upper middle class protagonist who pursues remedies against domestic violence within acceptable legal limits and with the support and approval of her family, especially her father. Whereas in Bulbbul, the protagonist transgresses boundaries by killing her tormentors, indulging in alcohol, tobacco and other pleasures that were hitherto forbidden to her, and daring to develop feelings for another man. Though the doctor is an ally, she is a completely independent agent. However, unlike Thappad, she doesn’t get the benefit of a happy ending. 

Perhaps in this sense, the film can also be compared to the shortcomings of contemporary ‘cancel culture’. Though ‘cancelling’ celebrities for their misconduct might help achieve short-term gains, long-term reforms in due process and strategies for the prevention of sexual assault are yet to be undertaken. Knee-jerk self-righteous angry reactions and call-outs on the internet can never substitute for actual healing and reparations for survivors of sexual assault. 

Also read: Paatal Lok: A Gripping Study Into Masculinities In North India

It makes me wonder, why is it that both films and the popular rhetoric about sexual violence always cast survivors as permanently damaged, and their future as beyond repair?

In Bollywood films, a rape survivor is either an angry embittered witch or an innocent victim who later takes her life. Why is that we don’t have endings like Chapaak for sexual assault survivors? Is it not possible for once to have a climax where the survivor moves forward and forges a new storyline for herself? In Bulbbul, the protagonist’s spirit remains permanently trapped in the haveli. One can hope that in the future, Indian cinema dares to explore more optimistic futures for other Bulbbuls. 


Megha Mehta is a legal researcher based in Delhi. If you liked this review you can follow her quips on Twitter or her movie review blog on Instagram

Featured Image Source: FilmyOne

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I am glad you touched upon the “mentally ill sexual predator” trope. In a society that’s already prejudiced against people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, it was hard to sit through certain scenes in the film Bulbul because a woman is getting desecrated while also listening to people use words like ‘retarded’ , ‘unstable’, “mental” without ever once stopping to think of the stereotypes being perpetuated.

    As it is, in society film viewers do not think of people with disabilities as human beings with certain limitations, who are entitled to human rights like dignity, opportunity, livelihood and education. Filmmakers should think deeply about the impact of the stereotypes they perpetuate in their narratives. The fact that we have segregated schools is a big cause of this deep-rooted prejudice.

    I also want to add that in the 1900s, it was much more difficult for most women to be truly happy, considering that she was viewed as property, and this made it hard for her to live life as fully accepted human being. In today’s times it might be possible if one’s parents are supportive, or if they’re not, if we develop the audacity and emotional resilience to embrace one’s full identity devoid of such basic support. #foodforthought

  2. There are a lot of reasons why a rape victim cannot have her life to what it was before the gruesome incident. Indian society would not let the victim forget what happened to her. The Justice system itself takes long time to deliver justice. And in a lot of cases the gangrape or rape is too brutal and barbaric that the victim succumbs or is traumatized for life.

    The author just for the sake of writing an article is writing anything without having any empathy whatsoever.

    In India when already crimes against women and discrimination is normalized to extreme extents, demanding from the rape victims to live a normal life and wanting the filmmakers to show the victim living a normal life is nothing but inhumanity. Everytime a woman gets raped now she should listen to this new rant that live a normal life, it’s okay, move on, these things happen to women and they move on. Is this what the author wants? This is inhuman.

    Only a victim knows the amount of physical pain, mental agony and emotional torture that she goes through when crimes like this happen. It’s a scar which the victim will never get rid of. Someone forcefully having intercourse with a woman is gruesome and asking the woman to let it be and live a normal life.. when there’s nothing normal left for the victim… it’s just disheartening to see such posts on a website about feminism.

    • Thank you for pointing this out! I was honestly bewildered by the author’s “feminist” arguments regarding rape survivors. “These things happen to women”, “move on”, people (including family of the victim) pretending everything is normal after some time, these are some of the biggest attitude issues of society we’re fighting. This movie showed that the scars are permanent and that they’re not to be brushed off, swept under the carpet. It showed how she tried to rebuild her life, even to hope for better things, with her relationship with her doctor and she wasn’t vilified for it. Moreover, for the time period in which the movie is set, there was no legal recourse for women. So I really don’t understand what the author was arguing for. This entire post was criticism just for the sake of it. The only quibble I had with the movie was the treatment of mental illness. There’s already enough stigma attached to it, we don’t need movies adding more to the pile.

  3. One thing I wanted to ask was, in the end is Bulbbul actually stuck to be in the Haveli for eternity? Because that would be truly unfortunate for someone who deserves more justice but when I saw the ending, I don’t think that’s what happened. What I interpret that after she actually dies from burning in the forest fire, she is actually liberated from a weak physical form and can enact full justice with a better suited supernatural form now and that’s what I think happens. She probably does end up killing Idranil aka the Elder brother aka her husband someway and hopefully continues her ways of saving people from their oppressors in that village in her way of dealing justice. Because honestly just letting her be stuck to the haveli to just haunt a bit would not be a suited ending that the makers would want to give after having her go through all that stuff of showing her awesomeness.

  4. I totally agree with this review, a rape alone cannot define a woman’s entire life, it is a horrible incident but as a society we must make her feel that she is not defined by her vagina, that she is not ‘unpure’ or has been ‘defiled’. Killing yourself or your perpetrator are not the only two options you have, there are people like Sunitha Krishnan, who stand tall and strong. And I totally agree that the domestic violence alone was a brutal trigger, you don’t need to add a 10 min long rape scene to get your point across (whilst fueling horrible prejudices against differently able people, termed in a very unsavoury manner ‘pagal’). And just like women don’t need knights in white horses to rescue them, women don’t need supernatural power to fight their abusers. I was disappointed in this movie as supernatural/horror flick, because it does not fit in the genre, however as a social commentary this film is a notable albeit flawed attempt.

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