In Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul, a child asks her aunt the purpose of a toe ring while being adorned for her wedding. After a playful explanation, the latter responds that the ornament is meant to keep a woman under control. Set in Bengal Presidency during the late 1800s, the film borrows its interpersonal politics from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) down to an indifferent husband and his much younger wife being drawn to her brother-in-law. But unlike the 1901 novella or Satyajit Ray’s 1964 adaptation Charulata, it is not a portrait of loneliness or a familial life rendered asunder. At least not just that. In her reimagining, Dutt depicts the eponymous protagonist’s isolation as a symptom of her abuse and the sadness embedded in her longing as a tragedy. The men in the household—her husband, his mentally unstable brother (both essayed by Rahul Bose) and Satya (Avinash Tiwary)—are guilty of breaking her in more ways than just her heart. But the story is about Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) as much as it is shaped by her. And in her story, she refuses to cut a picture of misery. Instead, she weaponises it to address and redress the narrative enforced on her.
Bulbbul’s once-upon-a-time template harks back to a time when women with inverted feet would look out for revenge and indulge in manslaughter. Dutt not just suggests such a reading but encourages it by duly undercutting the ancient familiar premise of women’s subjugation by a more primordial fable of women having transcended into supernatural beings and wrecking havoc; when men in the village die under suspicious circumstances, it is unanimously assumed that a chudail (witch) is behind it.
The woman let loose—leaping off trees and fuelled by mad fury — does conform to the general idea of a witch and yet in a recent interview Dutt described her debut outing as a feminist fairy tale, essentially equating the paranormal threat with a violent expression of female agency. Her insistence to view dread as magical and further execution of the same without manipulating the signifiers we associate with an evil female force is telling of her objective: to not just alter our vision but also our perception of witches. She achieves this by undiluting Bulbbul’s rage, depicting it instead as a reaction to the wrong meted out to her and providing it with a rare intent.
Female rage, enclosed within a mystical premise or not, has suffered from years of misrepresentation in both literature and films. If for men rage enhances their machismo, for women, it sticks out as an aberrant. This intrinsic defiance and the need to curb it made female anger both a cause and representation of madness. Although understood as an illness of the mind, madness contains cultural, political and even social significance, used in different ages in history with the purpose to persecute. The innate potential of the condition to be inflicted as an indictment for supposed disobedience made it a gendered malady.
American writer Phyllis Chesler, in her 1972 book, Women and Madness, states, “What we consider ‘madness,’ whether it appears in women or in men, is either the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one’s sex role stereotype.” In “The Feminization of Madness in Visual Representation,” art historian Jane E Kromm traces the evolving definition of insanity, going back in time when frailty caused by lovesickness (like Ophelia in Hamlet) was considered a feature. It changed to women being punished as witches in the Fourteenth century and later irritability, rage—also known as Hysteria (derived from the Greek word ὑστερικός or husterikós, meaning suffering in the womb)—becoming an indicator of madness in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
A classic example is the depiction of Bertha Mason, the mad raging first wife of Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre locked up in the attic. She served both as the definitive Other to the pious protagonist and a physical manifestation of the cut out roles that existed for women during the Victorian era: the angel or the monster. Literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar examined the binary roles of Victorian women by taking Mason as the centrepiece of their study and giving her the epithet of The Madwoman in the Attic.
It is worth noting the extent to which Hindi films have remained faithful to this binary. Female rage, often arising out of a love affair gone sour, has been presented as monstrous, unrestrained, and maddening. It strengthened men, but it weakened women. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the landscape of female antagonists was littered with instances where their rage is what marked them as villains or served as a recourse for vengeance leading ultimately to their destruction (Gupt, Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya, Aitraaz in 1997, 2001 and 2004 respectively). Lately, there has been a shift and Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 Kahaani is a searing testament to female rage being illustrated as controlled, aiding the protagonist rather than debilitating her. But by carving an alternative narrative, Ghosh also inadvertently acknowledges the ruinous ability of female wrath when uncontrolled, keeping the metaphorical madwoman locked up in the attic.
But a recent spate of films, most produced by Clean Slate Films (headlined by Anushka Sharma), no longer keep her caged. In NH 10 (2015), Pari (2018) and Bulbbul (2020), it is the unhingedness that empower the protagonists. The inclusion of horror in the last two films further asserts the link between female rage and madness but it is vindicated by the purity of their intentions and not necessarily their actions. As a result of female characters written in more details and their worlds being painted in intricate strokes, the cause of their rage is no longer usurped by male gaze but expanded to include self-preservation and emancipation, lending it heroic attributes. For instance, in NH10 the rampage embarked on the protagonist becomes both a consequence and a reason for her survival run. In Pari and Bulbbul the unbridled anger serve as a supernatural crutch for safeguarding and deliverance. The depictions justify their deeds and not their rage, presenting them instead as superheroes or as Dutt insists fairies.
These films — especially Pari and Bulbul—apparently conform to the aforementioned binaries but blur the boundaries. They feed into the stories we know, of witches jumping from trees and sucking out blood but by changing the vantage point, the accepted tales of female horror become revisionist, outlining the horrors inflicted on them and making us further question our ideas of chudails and demons. They take the accepted perception of female madness in stride and unleashes it on a world where the normative has been forever infeasible for women. NH10, a thriller revolving around a woman caught amidst modern-day horror, suggests the situation is far from over.
With Bulbbul, women might be finally coming of rage and this is the fairy tale.
Bulbbul is streaming on Netflix.
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