There are no chudails in the world, only wronged women looking to avenge themselves. Anvita Dutt’s directorial debut Bulbbul is actually a fairytale, if you choose to look beyond the horror. This Netflix film has a happy ending, but one that upends the happily-ever-after tradition. The story ends with the prince gone, the king dead, and only the princess left standing, smiling at the deliverance of justice. Bulbbul is the story of a chudail. But when you cross that bridge, you’ll find a feminist fairytale staring back at you from the shadows of the screen.
The story begins in 1881, Bengal Presidency, with young Bulbbul being married off to Indranil Thakur (Rahul Bose), a wealthy zamindar triple her age and size. As a disoriented child bride, Bulbbul instantly forges a friendship with Satya, Thakur’s younger brother who is the same age as her. The family also comprises Mahendra (Bose in a double role), who is Thakur’s mentally unstable twin, and his wife Binodini (Paoli Dam), who is the archetype jealous sister-in-law. (The ode Bengali literature is unmissable.)
Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) grows up in the Thakur manor with a growing love for Satya (Avinash Tiwary) and fraught relations with others. Noticing this, Thakur sends Satya away to London. When Satya returns five years later, he finds everything changed. Thakur has vanished, Mahendra is dead, Binodini is clad in widow‘s white, and Bulbbul – oh, Bulbbul, she rules the Thakur empire with airs befitting a thakurain. But all is not well since men have mysteriously begun to be killed by what seems to be the work of the local chudail. Satya (ironically named so) begins Sherlocking around for the truth, and the witch-hunt begins thereon.
Steady but Predictable
On the back of a strong cast, Bulbbul maintains a good pace throughout its 90-minute run, with a steady consistency that remains unhampered by overly-dramatic dialogues or crass sound effects. This comes as a pleasant surprise, because the absence of drama contradicts the grandeur and largesse of Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography, which is hands-down the highlight of the film. The red moonlight and everything it drenched, from the Thakur manor to the forest, is captured in a manner so rich and disturbing that it could have invoked anxiety even without mention of a chudail.
Despite the delicious shots, the story falls flat. Something is always happening on screen, and yet, nothing really happens until the end. Hardly any scene goes by without feverishly mentioning the chudail, which honestly hammers on the ears after a while. It almost seems like singular scenes around her have been strung together haphazardly, and the feeble love tracks that push the story forward actually do nothing to tie them up. The only thing keeping them afloat is the background score by Amit Trivedi, which is neither too contextual, nor too modern, but sits just right in the middle connecting our world to 1881 on the premise of young love.
Contrary to expectation, what with the cryptic trailer and all, the movie’s mystery was banally predictable from the get-go. What Dutt might have intended to be the ultimate reveal of the movie, comes across as a little disappointing.
Bulbbul and Binodini
Bulbbul is about the only character in the film with an arc. Dimri plays her with an enigmatic flair, a constant sardonic smile playing on her lips, enough to unsettle anyone. Her journey reflects in her transformation from a naive young bride to a fiery, kohl-eyed thakurain. The injustice she has endured accounts for it. Thakur battered her feet off, Mahendra raped her, and Satya left her to these wolves. The only man she can trust is Dr. Sudip, the token good guy played convincingly by Parambrata Chatterjee. When the chudail begins killing men who abuse women in the village – from pedophiles to evil husbands – Sudip defends her saying, “Rakshas nahi hai wo, Devi hai.” (which also is problematic for typecasting a woman, but we can let him off for being well-intentioned.)
The only other woman of significance in the film is Binodini, played to perfection by Dam. She is the vain choti bahu, older in age, always plotting to attain queenhood in the Thakur household. Her rendition of a Bengali Lady Macbeth becomes more obvious when she covers-up Mahendra’s crime by cleaning, dolling, and silencing Bulbbul right after. Binodini is the only emotionally complex character in the film, and I only wish her story was explored more.
Ferocious and Feminist
The moment Bulbbul transforms, after being raped by Mahendra, the moon turns red. It signifies her dark sindoor, her bindi, her aalta – auspicious symbols of marriage that she was decorated in as a young bride. She is no more bound by her sacred bichhua (toering) that her aunt implied patriarchy used to control women. Every night hence, the moon changes colour – blood red – evoking Bulbbul’s blood that the Thakur and his brother spilled.
Since it categorically belongs to the horror genre, Bulbbul does contain its fair share of spook. Strangely enough, it is of the kind that never once chills the bone. Why then is it even there? Elements of horror, perhaps, only exist in the movie to balance out the ferocious feminism it contains, which may have been hard for the faint-hearted to digest. Much like Kali, whose menacing form is placated by her more docile Durga avatar.
Imagine, if there were a real woman hacking a man to death for trying to rape a girl child. Would people have empathised with her the same way? Or would they have hurled criticisms at her for taking the law into her own hands?
Bulbbul is not preachy, yet it leaves us wanting justice for the women in it. This is a clear common thread that runs through all other productions that Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films has backed in the supernatural genre, from Phillauri to Pari. Her horror films never seem to scare, but question social traditions that have maimed women for years. Bulbbul is replete with them, holding up a mirror to child marriage, domestic violence, pedophilia, and rape. Though the plot isn’t brilliant, and doesn’t market to horror movie aficionados, it forces the audience to confront the patriarchal reality we live in. That alone is enough to make up for Bulbbul‘s win.
Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot
Views expressed are the author’s own.