On a rainy Friday afternoon, I watched Bulbbul on Netflix.
By Indian standards it is a very short movie. It did not move me to tears or rage, but left me reflecting on womanhood in India, or the reality of being a woman in India.
First, the facts. Bulbbul is an Indian supernatural drama film written and directed by Anvita Dutt and produced by Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Sharma. The film stars Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam, Rahul Bose and Parambrata Chattopadhyay. It was released on Netflix on 24th June 2020, and is set in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency in the 1800’s.
Let me capture the story in a nutshell.
Bulbbul is a child bride given in marriage to a man named Indranil, about two decades older than her. But she is more attached to her husband’s youngest brother Satya who is about her age. She is lusted after by another brother of her husband, Mahendra, who is mentally challenged. Bulbbul’s attachment to Satya soon raises suspicions in her husband which are fueled on by Mahendra’s wife Binodini, who is presumed to have an affair with Indranil.
Indranil sends Satya off to London, and in a fit of fury, beats Bulbbul up till her feet are in a pulp. Indranil leaves the Manor soon after. Dr. Sudip, an empathetic doctor treats Bulbbul for her injuries, but Mahendra takes advantage of her helpless condition and rapes her. In the ensuing violence, Bulbbul’s feet are permanently damaged, and she herself appears to have died. Yet she is alive when Binodini comes into the room and cleans Bulbbul’s thighs. Binodini tells her to keep silent, which Bulbbul does.
Satya returns after five years to find Bulbbul a strong and independent woman, running the Manor. A string of murders has happened in the village, and Satya suspects Dr. Sudip. However, it turns out that it was Bulbbul herself who kills the men who wrecked the lives of herself and fellow women. She is the ‘chudail’ – the she-demon with feet turned backwards. She meets a violent end just as Satya discovers the true identity of the ‘chudail’.
There are various themes that the movie handles:
1. Child marriage
The root cause of all evil in the story is child marriage. The uprooting of a child from her home, expecting her to live from then on in a strange household with a strange man is actually the beginning of the whole tragedy. Bulbbul’s friendship with Satya becomes natural and inevitable because of this.
‘A woman’s personal life consists of only her husband,’ says Indranil to Bulbbul, when she says that the book that she was writing with Satya was a personal matter. The movie is in fact a fierce critique of patriarchy, and how women rise from the ashes and fight for what is right. There are many helpless girls and women in Bulbbul who suffer at the hands of cruel fathers and husbands.
3. A reinforcement of the she-demon myth
Women, traditionally, are perceived as gentle, sacrificing creatures with no capacity to rise against those who ill-treat them. If she does, she has to be a she-demon or a witch, even if what she does is morally right. This is what happens in Bulbbul as the heroine turns into a she-demon to mete out revenge, and is a normal lady of the Manor at other times.
4. Oppressive social customs
There are any number of oppressive social customs portrayed in Bulbbul, understandably because the film is set a century back. However, some of those customs exist even now. For example, take the case of Binodini who is married off to a mentally challenged Mahendra. She is forced to marry him, which inevitably leads to her dissatisfaction with life and infidelity. In fact, along with child marriage, the tragedies that happen in Bulbbul are all created by human beings, in the name of social customs and traditions.