I’m admittedly a namby-pamby when it comes to horror movies. Sleepovers in my pre-teen years peppered with 3 am viewings of Raaz and The Ring have left me scarred. I’m also adequately traumatised by camping trips which included more ghost stories than I signed up for. And as an adult, you won’t catch me lining up to watch Conjuring 3.
So I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic when a friend insisted on spending our Friday night on Anvita Dutt’s new dark folklore on Netflix, Bulbbul. However, a few minutes of persuasion on his end allowed my insatiable need to never be left out of anything to kick in.
I submitted myself to an evening of blood-curdling banshee screams, black magic, daayans and jump scares. But to my surprise, Bulbbul turned out to be much more than that.
This feminist, revisionist tale takes on and subverts the patriarchal trope of the ‘chudail’ by casting her as woman wronged, as Megha Mehta pointed out in her review in Feminism in India. The Rahul Bose, Tripti Dimri and Avinash Tiwary starrer is akin to a desi version of Maleficent. That a fairytale as dark as this is imagined against the background of aristocratic 19th-century Bengal only makes it a more compelling watch.
Bulbbul, a child bride married to the much older Thakur Moshai, develops an infatuation for her brother-in-law Satya. In a predictable turn of events, Satya is sent to London to study in a bid to clip the wings of their budding romance. He returns 20 years later to find that his brother has abandoned Bulbbul and a bloodthirsty witch is supposedly hunting down the men of his village.
To those who grew up fascinated with witch stories, Bulbbul provides plenty of nods to age-old daayan tropes – long black hair, twisted feet, sinister motives and, of course, the constant toeing of the line between seductive siren and bloodthirsty demon. But soon enough, the movie gives our daayan a redemption arc and she emerges as a feminist vigilante.
This led me to question the very genesis of the lore of chudails. To my surprise, historically, chudails are described as women who died during pregnancy or childbirth or at the hands of mistreatment by their husbands or in-laws. They haunt those who abused them or target young men at random. In today’s day and age, we can look at this as empowering, but for centuries of human history, men have used this as an excuse to demonise women who dare to break free from patriarchal shackles.
In a way, this is a tradition common across cultures and time. The witch has always been the misogynistic monster of choice for society, with the same theme and thinly-veiled messaging – a confident woman is a dangerous woman; a beautiful woman is a dangerous woman; an assertive woman is a dangerous woman.
Even recently in the 2016 American presidential elections, American social media was flooded with doctored images of Hillary Clinton wearing a black hat and riding a broom, or else cackling with green skin. Her opponents nicknamed her ‘The Wicked Witch of the Left‘.
Perhaps we are so threatened by the idea of witches because a witch by definition pushes back against the very backbone of patriarchal society. She isn’t a woman entrapped by heteronormative family-oriented rules and rejects the ideals of marriage and child bearing.
“We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.”
We’ve all probably read this quote sprawled on t-shirts, Pinterest boards and protest posters. In the west, the word “witch” officially became a pejorative term in medieval times and the people driving the witch hunts of the era started preserving the patriarchy.
Like in many Western countries, accusations of witchcraft were, and still continue to be, weaponised against “troublesome” women in India.
The death of a child, a disease outbreak in a village, bad weather, a meagre harvest or plain insolence – anything and everything can lead to women being accused of sorcery, being branded as a witch, and hunted.
More than 2,500 women have been chased, tortured and killed in such hunts between 2000 and 2016, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
The reality is that the world’s cultural history of the persecution of ‘witches’ had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It is simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which is to repress women.
In western media recently, we’ve seen the witch reimagined as a feminist hero symbolically, as activists fighting for gender, politics, sexuality, or environmental health invoke the witch as a statement of strength and empowerment. Wiccan is even taught as a course in some universities.
The lighter form of Wicca has gone mainstream with pop stars such as Azealia Banks, Lorde and Lana Del Rey embracing the witchy aesthetic. The “spirituality” tag of Gwyneth Paltrow’s online shop Goop contains articles on tarot. Urban Outfitters has started stocking spell books.
Perhaps Bulbbul’s chudail is a step towards a homegrown form of female empowerment which harks back to the roots of these hairy fairytales. We need to take back terms like ‘daayan‘, ‘chudail‘, ‘vixen’ and ‘witch’ and own it, because we owe it to thousands of women who were shunned using these labels.
Some parts of Bulbbul left me a bit disappointed – the trope that a woman first needs to be “broken” to be empowered, the usage of rape as a plot device. But on the upside, the film is peppered with delightfully subtle metaphors of modern feminism and breathes fresh life into cultural folklore.
Also, if nothing else, in the vile sea of Rohit Shetty and KJo garbage we are fed in the name of entertainment, I’ll gladly pick stories of Indian women who can’t be forced to toe the line with their bichiyas and sindoor.
Note: This article was updated to include a link to a review written by Megha Mehta for Feminism in India for a reference that had not been duly credited by the author.
Fuelled by bhel and her imposter syndrome, Swarnim Jain likes to spend her time escaping from any form of meaningful conversation. Follow @swarnimjain on IG for infrequent updates about her life.
Featured image credit: Netflix