In traditional horror narratives it is often a wronged woman’s spirit who has come back to exact revenge. But when the camera adopts a feminist lens, the story can be different because instead of making a spectacle out of the woman, it helps us understand her pain, her experiences and her desire. The horror genre can be a great means for women to not just return the gaze but also foreground what they are dealt with in real life. And imply that it is payback time. It is a way to show perhaps the strength women are capable of having and the extremes perhaps to which they are driven and compelled to use this strength.
The recently released comic horror film Roohi attempts to do something like this. Roohi (Jahnvi Kapoor) is kidnapped by two men. One of her abductors falls in love with her while the other falls in love with the witch who possesses her. Though the plot seems to predictably veer towards “saving” Roohi from the witch, there is an unexpected twist towards the end which makes Roohi such a different horror movie.
The story is set in Baagadpur, a small town in Central India, which has a regressive patriarchal tradition of bride kidnapping. As a fleeting frame of a wall slogan to “save daughters” indicates, this could well be because of the skewed male-female ratio in the region resulting out of a preference for the male child which makes adolescent girls of a supposedly “marriageable” age a valuable commodity. A boy simply has to like a girl and then can plan to abduct and marry her. In contemporary times, because of lack of expertise and resources, the abduction is outsourced to agencies that specialise in this area.
Bhawra (Rajkumar Rao) and Kattanni (Varun Sharma) end up abducting a girl for their “boss” Guniya Shakeel (Manav Vij) who runs an agency that takes contracts for abducting girls and handing them over to the families of the boys who want to marry these girls. There are also rumours of lusty witches entering the bodies of young women apparently to experience sexual consummation the chances of which are very high if the groom falls asleep during the ceremony. Unbeknownst to her kidnappers, the girl Roohi is possessed by a witch by the name of Afza. Once Bhawra discovers this, his sole aim becomes to exorcise Afza from Roohi’s body, who he infers, is helplessly in the clutches of an evil spirit who is using her body to wreak havoc and is keeping the girl from leading a normal life.
On the other hand we have Kattanni who is drawn to Afza following a titillating, wordless exchange when he feels her desire for him as Afza’s literally laser beam gaze dwells on different parts of his fully clothed body. Whether this is an instance of displaced “fetishistic scopophilia” where the anxiety-inducing female body, (here also depicting the abject or the loathsome, since she is a witch) becomes a source of pleasure for the male viewer as described by Laura Mulvey or whether it is a special kind of desire called “teratophilia” where the human feels sexually aroused and drawn towards an entity like a monster or some such other entity remains debatable.
So while Bhawra’s mission is to exorcise the witch and free Roohi, Kattanni wants at all costs for Afza to stay for she has become the love of his life. The two men constantly argue and bicker reminding each other of their eternal friendship and who needs to sacrifice “his love” and “his girl”. Early on in the narrative, we see the men take ownership of the woman they love. In a scene where Roohi is lying face down, near a stream, the two men are unsure whether she is possessed at that point or not and ask each other to check whether it is “teri wali” (your woman). Interestingly, we do not know if either of these women actually love the men who have decided on their own what to do with them. Roohi shares her troubled existence with Bhawra but never once does she profess love for him. Therefore she is appropriately taken aback when she is told by Kattanni of Bhawra’s plans to marry her and responds that he cannot marry her without her “permission”. This response turns the traditional “damsel in distress” trope on its head as the damsel here despite being in distress does not want to submit or give herself away as a reward to her professed savior.
On the other hand we see exchanges between Kattanni and Afza with Kattani going gaga over his new-found love. That Afza likes spending time with him and is not a threat to him and is in good humour in his presence is obvious. That Kattanni is so smitten by a witch that he confides in Bhawra that his is a platonic relationship with Afza may have something to say about another dimension to love and romance. There is however no evidence in Afza’s case just as in Roohi’s case that either of them wants these particular men to be their partners. And this again creates a fissure in the hegemonic narrative where it is presumed that once a man desires a woman and moves mountains to “save” her putting his life at peril, she will naturally reciprocate by submitting to his desire.
Both men in the course of the narrative also resort to inflicting violence on the woman who is a roadblock in their love life. While Bhawra keeps sourcing exorcists to get rid of Afza, Kattanni vents his rage on Roohi and tries to drag her out of the hotel in Chimattipur once he comes to know of Bhawra’s intentions to destroy Afza for good. As a baffled Roohi tries to argue the absurdity of Bhawra’s plans to marry her without discussing with her, her statement is undercut by an emphatic Kattanni who says that this has been the custom of their village. Clearly, for even underdogs and counter-hegemonic masculinities like Bhawra and Kattanni then, there is no concept of the woman’s consent.
In a telling exchange between Afza and Roohi, in the absence of the two men, Afza for the first time, expresses the extent of her intimacy with Roohi since she has started inhabiting her body which subverts the narratives of her desire that people and lore have woven around her. She tells Roohi that it is unfortunate that despite being with her for so long, Roohi fails to see her for what she (Afza) truly is. Afza is her strength, the force and the presence that has kept her unharmed and protected from the entire world. The meta-narrative then becomes about a woman’s inner strength that can be the source of her liberation and protect her in a predatory world and define her existence in a very different way. This inner strength will obviously be regarded with fear, terror and dread just as the combination of Roohi and Afza is, by a society steeped in patriarchy.
In the final mandap (wedding venue) scene we see Roohi taking over Afza for the first time and instead of “saving” herself from the witch by marrying Bhawra, tying the nuptial knot with Afza instead, which is the ultimate subversive twist. Roohi’s first words are reflective as she asks Bhawra how long should she depend on others for her well-being, her protection. She unties the marital knot with him and starts tying it around her own wrist, symbolically suggesting that she is getting married to Afza and choosing Afza over all others. A panic-struck Afza tries to warn her that this act of hers could lead to both of them dying but Roohi clearly is in control and calling the shots here. She is heeding to Afza’s love for her and acknowledging her as a steadfast ally.
The last scene shows Roohi taking off on a motorbike even as the late-to-arrive-on-the-scene police inspector who is chasing her, enquires about her whereabouts. The old woman “Budhiya” (Sarita Joshi) to whom Bhawra has turned to for a solution and who has been giving him counsel all along based on her own experience with a witch once possessing her, tells the Inspector that “Roohi has run off with herself” and disappears suddenly from the scene. At one level Roohi has forged an alliance with Afza, at another level she has acknowledged her split half – the madwoman in the attic. She is every woman embracing her repressed self which is an aberration, and repulsive like Afza is, to patriarchy. And what is more heartening is that Roohi isn’t the first one to do it. She has the legacy of feminist mothers to look up to, in the likes of “Budhiya” who have chosen to be with their witch and live freely on the fringes of society rather than part from their inner strength and source of self-actualisation by leading normative lives.