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Bulbbul touches upon issues like child marriage, domestic violence and everyday sexism, thereby bringing to the fore the truth that it is patriarchy that is the real horror.
The vengeful female spirit or ghost, is a popular trope in horror. All too often, in Indian cinema at least, the focus is on ‘defeating’ or ‘gaining control’ over that spirit, no matter how righteous her position. Even as she decimates those who have wronged her, the viewer is encouraged to see her as the ‘monster.’ The movies never let us truly empathize with her.
And then came Anushka Sharma’s Pari, an understated feminist fable, which flipped the narrative beautifully. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), the film didn’t get the popularity it deserves. Stree, however, which was set up as a horror-comedy, gained much more popularity (probably because it had the male ‘buddy’ movie format), even as it encouraged the audience to empathize with the female ghost.
Bulbbul, also an Anushka Sharma production, takes the legacy of Pari forward, and encourages the viewer to side with the ‘monster.’
The movie begins with the wedding of the titular Bulbbul, who is a little girl, with a much older man, Indra (Rahul Bose). This is 19th century India, of course, with child marriage being commonplace.
With all her innocence, little Bulbbul has assumed that she has been married to Indra’s brother, Satya, who is closer to her age. She is told that as she grows up, she will learn the difference between a husband and a brother-in-law. Indra’s other brother, Mahendra (also played by Rahul Bose), who is a person with an intellectual disability, is also fascinated by Bulbbul, who he keeps referring to as a doll.
The movie then jumps forward to many years later, and shows an adult Satya (Avinash Tiwary) returning home after studying abroad. He has been away for only 5 years, but everything seems to have changed. His brother, Mahendra has been killed, and his widowed wife Binodini (Paoli Dam), doesn’t live at the ancestral mansion anymore. The patriarch, his eldest brother, Indra, has left home. The only person who remains is his childhood friend, and sister-in-law, Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), who is now the sole mistress of the mansion, and who wields her power with an ease he doesn’t expect from the naive girl he used to know.
A mysterious doctor (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) , who pays her visits and seems to be getting too close to her; and a spate of murders (similar to the murder of his own brother), that people say have been committed by a chudail, add to his discomfort, and Satya resolves to put things right again.
How Bulbbul came to reign over the household, and how Satya solves the murders, are the two mysteries that the movie sets up.
The movie has some definite gothic mystery vibes. Think Rebecca. Think Hound of the Baskervilles. The large house with its large secrets.
The question of who is committing the murders, isn’t really a mystery for the viewer. We know almost from the beginning. A clever viewer can even intuit the why, even if they may not know the exact details. There are no jump scares. Everything is expected, and everything plays out as expected, and yet the movie holds the viewer’s attention.
It helps that it is visually stunning. The sets, the cinematography and costumes are spot on, and it is very difficult to stop looking. The performances too are pitch perfect –we forget the actor, and see only the characters. Tripti Dimri shines as Bulbbul in all her avatars. Rahul Bose is convincing, both as the patriarchal Indra and as Mahendra. Paoli Dam imbues Binodini with all the insecurity and selfishness of a woman whose position in the family is on shaky ground. Avinash Tiwary’s Satya, has all the infuriating self-assurance of a man who knows nothing, and yet believes that he is always right.
What truly elevates the film however, is the storytelling that shifts from past to present and connects the dots. The viewer anticipates what happens, and when it does, there is a strange payoff. On the one hand, there is the satisfaction of having guessed right, and on the other the regret and grief that the truth is exactly what we thought it would be.
The movie, as it progresses, critiques the patriarchy.
Right at the beginning, the child Bulbbul asks why she must wear toe rings, and is told that it is to keep her in control. She innocently asks what control means. She doesn’t get an answer then, but her entire life from that point on, becomes an answer to that question.
Her husband expects her to be subservient and faithful to him, even as he sleeps with his brother’s wife, Binodini. Binodini herself, in an attempt to secure her own position, further marginalizes Bulbbul. Mahendra sees her as an object –a plaything.
The worst betrayal though, comes from Satya, who she has seen as an empathetic figure. He is blind to her anguish and is happy to leave her alone in a home where she has no one else she feels comfortable with. When he returns, and sees her as an unconventional, powerful, unapologetic woman, he tries to assert his control, and make her the ideal ‘badi bahu’ again.
As Bulbbul says, they are all the same, because they are all governed by the patriarchy.
In addition to everyday sexism, domestic and sexual violence against women are huge themes that drive the story forward, and the movie is unflinching in its criticism of the same.
The message that one gets, very clearly, is that the horrors women face every day; the little fears that have become so ‘normal’ for us, are far more frightening than any mythical chudail.
In trying to drive home that message though, is where the movie becomes too disturbing. There is a scene of a woman being beaten, and a rape scene, that are shown in much greater detail than necessary. The movie seems to recognize that, and it tries to soften the impact by showing these scenes in an ‘artistic’ manner, but that just makes it worse. Because there is nothing artistic about brutality and pain. I still flinched. I still could not look. And those scenes still haunt me. I can only imagine how triggering they would be for someone who has had these experiences, and I wish the film makers had chosen another way to bring home the horror. Better the jump scares than this.
I also did not like that a character with intellectual disabilities is portrayed as a sexual predator. It seems to further popular stereotypes about them and comes across as ableist. Especially because there is no good reason that the character HAS to be a person with an intellectual disability. This is a disappointment.
The movie also feeds the “women are women’s worst enemy” stereotype. The movie barely passes the Bechdel test (though it is feminist in the sense that it passes the Mako Mori test), and the two main female characters are shown to be constantly putting each other down. There is sisterhood and empathy displayed, in another way, towards female characters that we barely see on screen for a few seconds. But for Binodini and Bulbbul, that sisterhood never comes, and I’m afraid that most viewers will take away this message.
These criticisms must be kept in mind as we watch the movie, because they are not to be taken lightly. If we are to make films and write stories that are truly unconventional and progressive, we must be careful of falling back on such regressive tropes and ideas.
Bulbbul could have done much better.
That said, it doesn’t surprise me at all, that some of the complaints I’m hearing about Bulbbul, from men, are that this isn’t a horror movie at all.
Of course they don’t see the horror. If they did, the world would be a much better place.
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