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.
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.
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 protagonist is possessed by a spirit from the nearby Kaali temple, leading to her transformation into the ‘witch’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured Image Source: FilmyOne