We are brought up in societies that are built on certain accepted morals, values, and positions; and ultimately, they are the ones that play a larger role in the way we come to see the world. These values and roles are then projected out to us and given a stronghold with the help of tools like the media; which is simply nothing but storytelling.
Stories and the broad message they come with have been playing on our subconscious for decades; so much so that we often don’t realize the ways in which they may be problematic.
This holds especially true for folklore and fairy tales; which have been written with a skewed sense of gender and sex for years.
Irrespective of the diverse cultures folklore represents, they share commonalities stemming from the patriarchal society we are born into. Given that stories have a stake in the manner in which we formulate our own identities, the onus is on us to question these narratives and change the system. The newly-released Netflix horror film, Bulbbul, manages to stir up such questions and rips open layers of value systems that are fundamentally contorted in favor of one gender.
Victim to the regressive institution of child marriage, the story of Bulbbul (played by Tripti Dimri) starts off with her marriage to a rich landlord, Indranil (Rahul Bose), who is much older than herself. On her way to her husband’s place, young Bulbbul finds herself befriending her husband’s brother, Satya (Avinash Tiwary), who happens to be the same age as her.
The two grow up amidst an old Bengali folklore of a “chudail” — a she-demon described as having long black hair and bent feet that feeds on human flesh — whilst dreaming of a future they yearn to share together.
In a shocking turn of events, Satya is sent off to London to study law as per Indranil’s orders; who increasingly becomes aggressive and possessive of Bulbbul. He acts out in ways that damage not just the relationship Bulbbul shares with others, but also of that with herself. Furthermore, Bulbbul finds herself at the center of familial politics with other family members: Mahendra, Indranil’s mentally-challenged twin brother; and his wife Binodini (Paoli Dam). The dynamic shared between Bulbbul and Binodini changes over time; but is fueled by Binodini’s jealousy over Bulbbul’s role in the family. The story gains momentum with the return of Satya, who comes back home amidst multiple mysterious murders in the hands of what looks like a beast. The town he once knew has changed starkly and so has his childhood best friend and lover, Bulbbul.
The way that events unfold in the movie is unsettling and uncomfortable; and it is meant to be exactly that. There are no other ways of portraying abuse and control without it being violent.
The young girl, who married into this family with an appetite for curiosity and fairy tales; is stripped off of her youth in ways that demand justice. Justice is served when she takes hold of her own fate.
The character development in this film can come off suddenly but is not misplaced. They all have their own roles in the broader message the director, Anvita Dutt, tries to relay. Bulbbul, being the protagonist, stands as a representation of not just her story; but of several others who have and are living in fear and oppression in the hands of patriarchy. Indranil is the abuser and perpetrator who opens her eyes to the atrocities of the real world. Satya, who is expected to take up a more supportive role; does otherwise by taking it upon himself to control Bulbbul’s “immoral” actions.
At the same time, we see Doctor Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) be the friend Bulbbul needed. Their relationship starts with him tending to Bulbbul’s wounds; and is seen as one of admiration and support with Sudip helping out Bulbbul’s efforts, no questions asked.
The film does not go as far as defining the dynamic shared between the two as romantic, nor is it needed.
What is interesting is how the folklore element is used in the entire narrative. In several scenes, we see Bulbbul blurt out, almost sarcastically, how it must be a chudail hiding in the forest that is responsible for the mysterious deaths happening around in the village. The production of the film is brilliantly complementary; with excellent sound scores and creepy close-ups against the backdrop of 19th century Bengal Presidency. The setting does a great job of making us believe that the film is yet another attempt at a quintessential horror movie; only to leave the audience uncomfortable and scared in the most real sense.
Children’s fairy tales have the importance that they do because it’s through these stories that kids find their social standing.
When we have biased storylines and gendered language, we are essentially telling these kids that this is what their future looks like in a matter-of-fact way. With respect to Bulbbul’s story, she sees how there are very few people in her family who wanted to take action. Whenever instances of discrimination occur, there are many who wish to coax the girl into silence as if acceptance is the only resolution. In Bulbbul’s case, she increasingly realizes how there were several stories of violence and abuse surfacing in the town. The supernatural element becomes the dominant trope when Bulbbul uses folklore in her favor; and turns herself into a chudail to fight the system. As empowering as that can be, it truly is unfortunate on her part.
There are several moments in the film when you feel the helplessness, anxiety, and loss lingering in the air; and you see why she had to strip away every last bit of innocence to stand up for herself. This is the lived reality of many who continue being brutally silenced in the eyes of their patriarch.
Our societal structures are built in a way that shows gendered systems embedded even in the language we use.
Research proves how some languages like English, French, and German are highly gendered, reinforcing dominance. When we use such languages and build stories that tell people what they are meant to be and what their role is, we fail as a society.
The film cleverly uses fables and folktales; and gives horror a spin by using it in a setting that is relatable. It is necessary for us — as members of society first and an audience second — to remember that this story is neither unique nor fictional as it’s the only way we can truly understand the impact of a film such as this. Bulbbul’s story may not be newly written; but why should it be when gender-based discrimination has been going on for centuries? In the absence of jump-scares and eerie backdrops, Bulbbul presents the existing societal systems as horror redefined; and that is an important conversation to have in today’s day and age.
Cover Image: Bulbbul (Netflix)