There are quite a few scenes in Bulbbul, the supernatural film released on Netflix a few days ago, that may give you the shivers – the eerie red undertone and the jungle where a demoness is believed to rule, the dark corridors of the haveli which perpetually gives you a sense of foreboding. But nowhere is the movie more frightening than when it shows reality at its worst – on how women are victimised and made to feel helpless in a myriad ways, at houses that never become homes.
Set in the late 19th century in West Bengal, Bulbbul begins with the child marriage of the titular character (to a much older man) and her friendship with her husband’s little brother Satya, who is around her age. The film mostly revolves around her adulthood, and the many hardships she faces: from being lonely in a huge mansion inhabited by detached individuals, to domestic violence and brutal rape.
But the film is shaped by a fairy-tale told at the beginning, about a demon (Chudail) who lived in the trees, and drank the blood of men and gobbled up women in households. In a way, the film shows how fairy-tales and folklores are just a reinterpretation of our ugly realities.
Although the film is set in British-ruled India, more than a century ago, the parallels with experiences of women in today’s milieu is striking. Yes, child marriage is illegal, yet continues to happen in various pockets of the country; domestic violence is a norm in many marriages, as women are conditioned to quietly accept their ‘fate,’ and rape is an evil which women across castes and classes live in daily fear of. Through another character (Binodini – played by Paoli Dam) the film also shows how women overlook the microaggressions of domesticity with material possessions: a reality for millions of women in India even today.
And this is what gets the audience hooked to the film; you are not just watching it, you are living it and feeling it. The magical realism that guides the film makes it all the more real.
Of course, Bulbbul’s storyline is predictable and the climax (solving the “mystery”) was not particularly a revelation; but none of it takes away from the crux of the movie. The 90-minute-film stays with you for a long time after watching it. However, the portrayal of women as either demons or goddesses – rather than as human beings with flaws and struggles – lets one down, especially in a movie that is deeply feminist.
Yet, if it was folklore that vilified women as witches in another century, today we have a more deeply internalised misogyny in India. The casual sexism on social media and ‘humorous’ memes on jealous girlfriend or bossy wife is not even frowned upon; women who fight back (instead of quietly tolerating injustice) are vilified, even demonised. But ‘motherhood’ continues to be deemed essential for women to be respectable.
Stories Of Women, By Women
It is impossible to introspect about Bulbbul and not see the beauty of women telling women’s stories. One can’t ignore that this surreal film is brought about by Clean Slate Films, the production company owned by actor Anushka Sharma. It has always taken a powerful stand on women’s issues: through movies and web-shows like NH10 to Paatal Lok. And the emergence of women in cinema behind the screen is surely setting higher standards too. Even the credits of Bulbbul start with the name of the lead actress – Tripti Dimri, who plays Bulbbul to perfection.
In fact, as the film progresses, the inhuman treatment that Bulbbul receives from the men in her house turns her into a more headstrong, clever, and detached woman. (Interestingly, the screen adopts the red filter after she is changed; the flashbacks of a more innocent Bulbbul has a pleasant tone.) Tripti’s acting is so matured and detailed that even her smile is different in two parts of the story: as a young, happy wife, she smiles with innocence. But when she is the Lady of the mansion, after facing unbound brutality, her smile does not reach her eyes; she is a different person now.
The directorial debut of screenwriter-and-lyricist Anvita Dutta, the film brims with artistic beauty in every frame. Siddharth Diwan’s camera and Amit Trivedi’s music comes together to get each shot to perfection, ably supported by production designer Meenal Agarwal.
Bulbbul is a fairy-tale that amazingly shows how every fairy-tale is just a lie made up to re-establish social hierarchies: something women are continuing to be victimised by, across centuries and societies.