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So much of patriarchy is about controlling women, their behaviour, their bodies, their choices. A Chudail, or as in Roohi, a Mudiyapairi, is the way Hindi films often deal with this.
Everything outside of the patriarchy-sanctioned behaviour and appearance of women is to be feared, and cannot go unpunished – this is the topmost rule in a patriarchy’s rulebook for women.
The Witch/ Daayan/ Chudail is always a woman, a powerful one who lives outside of the rule book prescribed for ideal womanhood– Too rich or too poor, too beautiful or too ugly, too many kids or none, widow(and happy) or single(and happy), too brash, too confident, too much.
According to the 2019 National Crime Bureau records in the years between 2000 and 2016 more than 2500 people were accused and hunted for being Dayans and Chudails. Like all witch hunts historically, the accused were primarily women vulnerable because of their social status- widows, single women, and specific to India, the most vulnerable women of oppressed castes, who just happened to possess the most valuable asset of all, land.
In Bollywood, this trope presents as an angry, vengeful female spirit who has been brutalised into becoming a supernatural being by a ‘bad’ man and plays to the specific fetish of seeing a woman suffer through rape and violence (Bulbul 2020); she is then punished and hunted to death for becoming vengeful and supernatural by the good man, playing to the saviour complex of men (Ek Thi Daayan, Stree, Bulbul). Either way the female character exists only within the stereotype of victim or Dayan and only to satisfy the male gaze.
I was truly expecting the worst when I began watching Roohi on what was a slow day and I wasn’t disappointed. Just about everything about the film is bad. The acting, the screenplay, direction, the messages they send out- There is a small town filled with priests who apparently rid people of the ghosts they are possessed by. And most of it is done by assaulting people who could just as well have been suffering from mental health issues. The film leaves no stone unturned by way of regressive, harmful stereotyping.
Roohi, the eponymous heroine is a girl who is possessed by a Mudiyapairi. No, it’s not a rare variety of mango, Mudiyapairi is a super-witch, who is a local variety of a Chudail, whose feet are inverted, and whose only desire is to get married.
“Shaadi…Shaadi…” forms the bulk of the dialogue of this Mudiyapairi, who is imaginatively called Afza. Get it? If you didn’t, one of the protagonists, Kattanni even spells it out for you- Roohi-Afza, which sums up the humour quotient of the film. Oh, they do try some ableist humour with the other protagonist Bhawra (Rajkummar Rao in his career worst) and his speech disability.
Kattanni falls in love with Afza the Mudiya (and gifts her with a gudiya, cunningly punny) and Bhawra with the soulful, constantly fainting Roohi. The men even make a quick arrangement among each other about who gets to sleep with the woman because there’s just one body. Luckily for everyone, Kattani gracefully withdraws saying that his love is a spiritual one.
Neither thinks it is important to check with the woman in question and why should they even?
Bollywood has taught us repeatedly that consent is nothing. A woman’s ‘No’ is just a speed bump to ‘Yes’. Mostly because what a woman secretly desires is to be stalked and coerced and assaulted in public before she capitulates joyously into the hero’s arms. Kabir Singh certainly taught us this.
And so when to my utter shock, Roohi is affronted about Bhawra deciding to marry her without her permission, I decided to sit up and pay attention. As my friend who accused me of torturing her for two hours just for the last few minutes of value says, it is in the final 20 minutes that this film redeems itself somewhat.
So much of patriarchy is about controlling women, their behaviour, their bodies, their expressions of femininity. Don’t laugh too loudly, cover your mouth, tie up your hair, cross your legs, don’t take up too much space, get married, have children, be subservient to your husband.
It often takes years, even a lifetime for many of us to embrace those rejected parts, to unlearn the patriarchal conditioning.
Roohi who feels traumatised by the existence of the Mudiyapairi possessing her, tries to leap off a building, when Afza the Mudiyapairi prevents her by saying, don’t treat me as a pain to be suffered, I am your strength, your courage, I protect you. In the end, Roohi makes her peace with the inner Chudail and walks the saat pheras around the fire with herself. She rejects Bhawra’s help saying, I no longer want to depend on others.
She embraces that shadow self, the aspect of ourselves that we are conditioned to fear and reject from birth.
While not excusing the very problematic issues with the film Roohi, this is perhaps the first time in Bollywood has the woman rejected not one but two ‘decent’ suitors to ride off into the sunset by herself.
And so a film that integrates the Chudail and the woman as one powerful being, with agency over her body and her life and not dependent on the only legitimate support of a male, either a father or a husband, is perhaps a rare if flawed film with a feminist message that you are enough for yourself.
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