Bulbbul, Netflix India’s latest release, is reminiscent of recent Hindi films like Phillauri and the earlier Talaash where the female ghost is a product of an unjust world. Writer Anvita Dutt started writing the film, which is her directorial debut, with an image — that of a woman hiding her feet under her sari in fear. The image made it to the film that is set in a 19th century upper caste landowning household in Bengal. Bulbbul’s (Tripti Dimri) husband Indranil (Rahul Bose) is exasperated that she never wears shoes. She never learns, he says. It’s an odd comment, for the scene is about the aftermath of his realisation that she might be in love with his brother, Satya (Avinash Tripathy). In the context of the film’s running motif of Bulbbul’s feet, however, the comment fits in perfectly.
The first time we see the child-bride Bulbbul is through a shot of her feet. While dressing her feet in alta, her aunt tells her that toe-rings prevent girls from flying away; they are for keeping you in control. Later her sister-in-law alludes to this when she comments on Bulbbul’s relationship with Satya by saying that her toe rings have become loose. The demon-woman is known to have inverted feet and the first time we see the good doctor Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), Bulbbul comments on his obsession with her feet.
Her feet are also what her husband targets, as he hits her in a slow motion sequence. Feet, that literally take us places, signify mobility, making them a dangerous prospect for women. The men, both Indranil and Satya, walk away to a new life when there is nothing left for them back home. The women have to find other ways.
Bulbbul often moves from the literal to the metaphorical, not just in its use of feet as metaphor, but also in its representation of its protagonist. There are two Bulbbuls. In the flashback scenes, she is childlike, unable to hide her feelings and unwilling to learn the rules of the adult world. The other is the Bulbbul of the present, in control, able to laugh at those who caused her misery in the past, aware of the power she yields over them. If the former Bulbbul exists despite patriarchy, the latter seems to transcend it in a household now free of its men.
The penultimate fire sequence is tragic, for Satya follows in the tradition of his brother by starting the fire. But what are we really mourning? Perhaps we are mourning the loss of what could have been between Bulbbul and Satya. Unlike her, Satya is not untainted by patriarchy for even his jealousy towards Sudip is soon taken over by his desire to punish her for playing with the rules. Sudip, too, can only imagine Bulbbul in a binary — she has to be a devi (goddess) if she is not a demon. Perhaps, we are mourning the existence of this limiting binary.
Apart from recent films centred on female ghosts, Bulbbul also reminds me of Qissa, where patriarchy itself is personified as a ghost, lost and abandoned after destroying the lives of women around him. While both Qissa and Bulbbul depict the horrors of patriarchy, they are not just horror films. In Bulbbul, what could have been only horror, plays out as fantasy. This choice comes from its gendered lens, for depicting the world realistically would have meant acting out status quo. If life in the film was realist and literal, the first Bulbbul would have long been forgotten, and the second Bulbbul would have never got the chance to exist.
In fact, the horror moment in the film is not the chudail/female demon with her inverted feet, but the slow motion sequence of the husband inflicting violence. Raja Ravi Varma’s “Jatayu Vadham” in the background seeks to contextualise his act, equating him with Ravana, perhaps to remind us how the film views his act of violence. The real horror, though, is that the sequence itself, shot in a painting-like style, becomes an uneasy reminder of how we end up immortalising acts of male violence, sometimes as courage, and in this case, as terror.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 8, 2020 under the title “The Real Horror (Film)”. Magazine is a New Delhi-based writer and holds a PhD in film studies
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