Reclaiming My Grandmother’s Superstitions: ‘Bulbbul’ and South Asian Horror
One of my favorite childhood photographs is taken on my terrace, my hair open and sulking at the camera. Frozen in that frame is the memory of my grandmother. Moments after the photo was taken, she dragged me away to beat the setting sun. “Girls do not roam with their hair untied after dark,” she would tell me, “then the chudails [witches] catch hold of them.” It’s one of the many stories and superstitions I grew up with that I still instinctively follow today.
Chudail, the supernatural subject of Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul, is the ghost/spirit of a woman who either died while pregnant, suffered sexual violence, or survived a miscarriage. Traditionally, these spirits are said to have upturned feet and have an appetite for men’s blood. While they have been the staple of uncountable horror films in India, the makers of Bulbbul have chosen to revisit the origin of that folklore itself and subvert it from a feminist lens.
Set in the late 1800s in colonial Bengal, Bulbbul spans two decades of the title character’s (Tripti Dimri) life as a child, a young adult, and a woman. Early in the film, Bulbbul, who is married to Indranil (Rahul Bose, who also plays his intellectually disabled twin brother, Mahendra), finds her closest companion in Satya (Avinash Tiwary). Satya is her husband’s youngest brother; the two meet when Bulbbul is just seven years old, and their companionship blooms as they grow older. They write short stories together, climb trees, and serve as their only friends in the lonely mansion.
Premised on the murder-mystery of Mahendra and other local men, the film unravels the murders occurring in the present simultaneously with Bulbul’s harrowing past. We watch as it explains her growth from an innocent child to the lonely mansion’s imposing matriarch. The deeper we go within the story, the more we realize the little girl we had seen in the beginning is gone.
The splendor of this period drama – Bulbbul is set in 1883 Bengal – disguises the presence of horrors that are consistently relevant today. It is, at once, intensely familiar and completely alien. This dichotomy is a signature of Anushka Sharma’s new production house, Clean State Filmz, and their Bollywood horror-experiments. Much of their work is rooted in folk literature, retelling dominant narratives of villains and witches.
In India’s postcolonial imagination, the folkloric method of passing down indigenous belief systems often contrasts with our English education. These belief systems are reflected in our storytelling, framed mainly around the folk tradition of theatre and epic storytelling. This is why Indian cinema has always been dependent on stock characters in the moral binaries of good and evil.
So, too, is Bulbbul’s horror anchored in a set of binaries: science vs. superstition, goddesses vs. devils. Fairy tale imagery abounds – in one scene, a flying witch is juxtaposed against the tragic drowning death of a woman who has been rejected by her husband. The upturned feet – a staple of the witch in folklore – are given scientific reality in the violent breaking of Bulbbul’s feet by her husband, leaving one wondering if all descriptions of terrifying she-demons are perhaps birthed in similar real-world circumstances.
Since Bulbbul spans a child-bride’s lifespan to adulthood, the filmmakers choose to show her growth through her position on the screen. She evolves from a marginalized figure that always appears at the edge of the screen – like a bird poised to fly away – to the woman who stands at its center. Just as she straddles the narrative’s past and future, so will Bulbbul, fully attired in her Thakurian regalia, stand in the center of the screen, leaning back against the house’s giant walls.
Her centrality in the film is an evidential reversal of the authority of Men Of Reason, the intellectual class that dominated this period. After all, the Indian Independence movement’s cultural backdrop consisted of these Bengali upper-class intellectuals, Western Educated Men of Science and Logic. These men were to espouse highbrow notions of freedom, but just like their Western counterparts, left their women out of it.
Rape-revenge fantasies are tiresome tropes, but this is a country where the death penalty and fake encounters are normatively understood as justice. Too many movies offer the trope of a woman who is transformed by rape – always lengthily shot – who then comes and takes revenge on the bad guys. But most sexually violent scenes are merely added for their shock or trigger value, without any conversation around them.
The retributive violence in Bulbul is a palpable undertone. You see the murders happening, but the fact that all of these men were killed because they were wife-beaters and pedophiles is a pattern that emerges only in the end. It denies viewers the catharsis of watching a rape-revenge fantasy by conducting the revenge before we have an active knowledge of the violation. In a way, we are left feeling like those outsiders who are aghast at harassment allegations against their favorite artists. ‘How can such a good man be canceled so horribly,’ we ask, never knowing the horror they might have perpetrated behind the scenes.
The most gruesome scene in Bulbbul – the physical beating of the titular character – is captured only through the soundscape. We hear the hot poker whipping down and the screams of a horrified child. In the scene, blood splatters onto a painting of one of the most iconic moments in the Hindu epic Ramayana. It is a pictorial depiction of Sita-Haran, the abduction of Sita by Ravana, frozen at the point where Sita is struggling within the flying chariot, and a bird called Jatayu tries to foil Ravana, and so he strikes it down.
After such a gruesome scene of domestic violence, many critics have noted that the film did not need an additional rape scene, especially one perpetrated by a person with a disability. They argue that her husband’s physical abuse should have been enough of a trigger for her transformation (I wonder if we must rely on abuse as a trigger for empowerment at all, and not see them as actual possible incidents that happen in the lives of women instead). We see Bulbbul crawl to the center of the frame after the brutal beating from her husband. In terms of the narration, her self-actualization here is complete, therefore it is wrong to assume she is ‘empowered’ by her sexual violation.
To have a person with a disability portrayed as a rapist also confronts our preconceived notions of who can and cannot commit an act of sexual violence in these stories. While it is important to note that people with disabilities are disproportionately the victims of sexual abuse, not its perpetrators, Bulbbul uses its historical precedent as a challenge to the rationalizations that follow an act of sexual assault.
In his review, Hindustan Times’ critic Rohan Nahaar called the film “pretty but problematic.” Not only did he call out the unnecessary duration of the rape sequence, he insists that the storyline is unoriginal and the rape a cliche, adding that “there’s a reason why the rape-revenge subgenre of horror is considered outdated.” But given its folkloric roots, I would insist that in Bulbbul’s case, it is in the absolute banality of the story we have heard a hundred times before that the real horror emerges.
At times, Bulbbul reminded me of Revenge by Coralie Fargeat, a French-American Netflix original. Rohan Nahaar himself extolls this movie for having the same theme as he derides in Bulbbul; both films keep the hyper-violent format of the rape-revenge fantasy intact but lean heavily into the fantastical as a statement on how “angry-assassin-on-a-rape-revenge-rampage” IS a toxic masculine fantasy. In reality, women don’t turn into chudails, nor do they get their revenge when they suffer violence. Films like Bulbbul reframe the folklore of our grandmother’s stories which taught us that women being abused, tortured, and murdered somehow made us the monsters.
In retrospect, when I think about my grandmother’s superstition about keeping my hair up, I think of how keeping one’s hair down is a sign of beauty. Culturally, children were expected to keep their hair tightly braided, and only as “women” being socially deemed ‘sexually available’, take pride in their tresses. The possibility of men taking advantage of a girl in the dark seems like the only logical conclusion to the strict rules we had about not leaving our hair open after sunset.
Therefore, all I would like to leave the reader with is wishful thinking. That when we retell stories like Bulbbul, it teaches us not to force little girls to tie their hair in braids, but instead acts as a warning to men who dare pull them.