Bulbbul and Flawed Feminism
Bulbbul is the most recent film produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films. Their other works are Paatal Lok, Pari and Phillauri. It was released on 24th June and is streaming on Netflix. Written and Directed by debutante Anvita Dutt, the film is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Chokher Bali, Dutt herself says when writing for this era, it was inevitable, she went on to take inspiration and name some of her characters from Nostonir and Chokher Bali.
Bulbbul, on first glance, may look like an age-old told horror story, but as one delves deeper into experiencing it, we soon realise it’s much more. The cast includes Tripti Dimri as Bulbbul, Rahul Bose in a double feature, Avinash Tiwary as Satya, Paoli Dam as Binodini, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay as Dr Sudip.
The story is set in 1881, in The Bengal Presidency. The film opens with the wedding of a little girl to a grown man. Bulbbul is a child bride, arriving at the doors of her new home. She mistakes the boy closest to her age, Satya, as her husband. Satya is her brother in Law and Indranil is the one she’s wedded to. We are later introduced to the rest of the family. Indranil’s twin brother who is mentally ill and childlike, and his wife, Binodini.
Fast-forward to 20 years later, Bulbbul is now the lady of the Haveli, Binodini is a widow, with her head shaved and body draped in white. Satya has returned from his studies abroad only to find that there are mysterious murders happening in the village, and there are rumours that a “chudail” is behind it. So, the story slowly unfolds.
Colour is used quite significantly in this film. Beautifully highlighted by fantastical elements, we are thrust into another world completely, when a scene is dipped in one hue. Red is the most significant colour in the film, while it may be universally known as the colour of love, in this movie it represents rage, it is the colour of injustice, her sindoor, her bindi, her feet painted red and the blood of the men that she slays.
As the story progresses, we see each character revealed in different shades, subtle tones become more prominent and, in the end, complete the full picture.
We see glimpses of Bulbbul and Satya playing in their childhood, developing their own games and stories. After growing up, we see the context of their closeness change, as Bulbbul develops feelings for him.
We see Bulbbul’s journey from a pining naïve girl turn to a woman who faced the worst of hardships on account of the men in her family. She has suffered. Due to no fault of hers, she landed up in a home with no comfort, her only friend being Satya, who was also the one person closest to her age. Satya is clueless, portrayed as a prince charming, later commented on Bulbbul’s change in demeanour and tries to control her behaviour. The most complex character of all, who plays the envious woman, is Binodini. She’s regarded as the “chhoti bahu” and has to bow her head down to a child.
We understand where she’s coming from when she comes to visit Bulbbul after her assault. “Chup Rehna”, her words seem practised, as if she’s been told this over and over again - to keep quiet and to endure. She herself is a victim of patriarchy. But the significance of the broken family is perhaps due to the one-sided incestual romantic entanglements we see between them. We know Bulbbul has feelings for Satya, Indranil for Bulbbul, even Mahinder thinks of Bulbbul as his toy, and Binodini craves Indranil’s love, as we can see she’s the one who cares for him. Satya, on the other hand, has no clue of what really happens in his haveli.
Misogyny is highlighted in different ways throughout the film, some subtle, like the way Bulbbul was married off, and the words Satya would use, otherwise, it is quite clear and direct when it comes to Binodini and the horrific incidents that Bulbbul went through. The incidents were sequential, the one with domestic violence was highly aestheticised, followed by sexual assault was raw, quiet and endless. The scenes were graphic and prolonged. The film uses rape as a plot point, but the question is - were these events really necessary to put the point across, of pain and eventually, of transformation?
The problem that comes with what one chooses to show their audience is the conclusion. In this story, the conclusion is such that Bulbbul dies in vain. Bulbbul is the chudail, she gained her power from Goddess Kali when she needed it the most. She killed Mahinder in his sleep, on the night of Kaali Maa Puja. While it was a little cathartic to see Bulbbul kill abusive men as a form of revenge, she dies at the hands of her former love interest, Satya. The indirect cause of the hurt done to her. She dies due to male jealousy while she could have lived on as a female warrior, continuing to keep the women of her village safe. But now her death is only at the conscience of Satya. While she does come back as an apparition to haunt Indranil, when he returns, she still isn’t free. She’s bound to the Haveli because of her pain.
Bulbbul is being praised for being a Feminist Revenge Story. The revenge part is true, as our main character takes the idea of revenge to the extreme. But the reason people feel so, is because we have a lack of female centred films. Just because a film is written and directed by a woman, has a female lead and highlights violence against women, doesn’t mean that it’s feminist. Bulbbul is a beautifully flawed film that opens up debate on feminist topics and provides a platform for better stories to be produced. The writer and director, Anvita Dutt, herself stated, “People call the film a feminist fairytale. It isn’t. It’s a tragedy”.
That, is something we agree on.