Bulbbul, the latest film produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films, is a tale of love and horror – of fiction that stems from tumultuous realities. Despite its predictability and flaws, it’s a feminist fairy tale like no other. The film is available for streaming on Netflix.
Bulbbul is set in 19th century Bengal Presidency, when Bulbbul, a child bride, is married to Indranil, a man three times her age. Indranil lives in a large haveli with his mentally challenged twin brother, Mahendra, Mahendra’s wife, and his youngest brother Satya – closer to Bulbbul in age and interests. Bulbbul develops a strong bond with Satya, one that inspires jealous anger in Indranil over the years, and he sends Satya abroad to study. When Satya comes back 5 years later, Mahendra is dead, Indranil has left the city, and Bulbbul is master of the house, and her life – much to Satya’s discomfort. At the same time, a series of men being murdered in the village, reignites an old folklore among the people, of the chudail with twisted feet, who lives in the forest and mauls men to death.
The Subtle And Generational Injustices Women Face
The injustices meted out to women are explored in the film without shying away, to the point of almost being too heavy-handed. Bulbbul goes through unthinkable injustices at the hands of male jealousy, ego, and aggression.
The film is cloaked in ruddy filters and filled with red objects. Red is the universal colour of love, but in the film, it’s the colour of injustice and rage. It’s the colour of Bulbbul’s sindhoor, her bindi, and the red alta painted on her feet. It’s also the colour of the blood-moon on the night of the Durga pooja, and the blood of the men that is spilled on other nights.
As a child, on her wedding day, Bulbbul asks her aunt why she must wear toe-rings. Her aunt explains that there is a nerve in the toe, and if the nerve isn’t pressed, the girl tends to fly away. Seeing that Bulbbul is fascinated by this notion, her aunt reiterates in a more sombre tone, “It’s to control you.”
The film follows not only Bulbbul, but Satya – a young man on the cusp of toxic masculinity. The kind boy that Bulbbul loved, grows into a confused one conditioned into following the footsteps of his older brothers. When Satya comes back home from London and sees Bulbbul taking charge of the haveli and commandeering people’s work, he masks his discomfort by laughingly asking, “Thakur-Thakur khel rahi ho Bhabhi?” He grows increasingly perplexed and chagrined by her not wearing a veil, smoking, being friendly with another man – her confidence and self-assured demeanour in general. “What did you do with the sweet girl?” he asks her.
Satya is constantly conflicted with his love for Bulbbul and the patriarchal beliefs he’s been conditioned to follow.
Reclaiming The Demonisation Of Women
Anushka Sharma and her production house seem to be developing a new niche in Bollywood – that of feminist horror. From NH10, to Pari, and now Bulbbul, the films explore the violence and injustices meted out to women by patriarchy with a chilling darkness, and a supernatural horror that matches the women’s anger.
We’ve all grown up listening to horror stories about the witch who ate children, and the daayans and chudails who ensnared and killed men. These folklores are almost always birthed in truth, not the women’s truth, but men’s perception of women who refused to be conventional or submissive. A woman who could not, or did not want to, have children, birthed horror stories narrated to little girls about the witch who despised children and ate them. A woman who was desired by, or spurned, multiple men would birth stories of evil, seductive daayans. A woman who fought back against male dominance would undoubtedly be brandished a chudail.
Bulbbul explores the realities that give birth to these horror stories about women.
As the chudail kills rapists and abusers, it’s clear that for Bulbbul the chudail isn’t a creature to fear, but a creature of liberation and empowerment. The chudail unapologetically steps into the role that men have assigned and forced her into.
Her feet may be twisted, but they’re unadorned by the alta that domesticates and toe rings that cage women.
Bulbbul is visually stunning, flawed, unabashedly feminist and angry – much like the women it represents.
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