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Bulbbul: Story Of A Woman Draped In 6 Yards Of Brahminical Patriarchy

TW: Domestic Violence, Rape, Murder

Occasionally, I find myself in a state of confusion after consuming cinematic material. This article is motivated by one such experience, specifically attributed to the movie: Bulbbul. Referred to as a “powerfully feminist, revisionist tale of a woman”Bulbbul is being applauded by many film reviewers. However, I cannot bring myself to agree to such a conclusion.

Every introductory scene attributed to a character allows a viewer to get familiar with the mannerisms of a character. Accordingly, the viewer finally catches a young Bulbbul, balancing herself on a tree branch while looking unkempt. Well, this appearance would not be appropriate enough to satisfy the standards of Brahmanical patriarchy and thus, her sringar, with bichuas is done again, to control her. However, a young Bulbbul constantly asks questions. Therefore, the protagonist’s active agency, too, is communicated to the audience, indicating the fact that she will not be a mere subject who follows commands, unthinkingly.

Bulbbul as Thakurain
The intended audience realises that their protagonist is a strong-willed woman, one that is fearless of questioning gender-roles, in whatever capacity, that is. Credits: Netflix

Years later, the viewer meets the protagonist sitting, and dominantly so, on a jhula while expressing her disagreement and anger in the choices of a man who chose to marry twice. She is then interrupted by Satya who observes that Bulbbul is ‘playing’ the thakur (lord) of the house. For this is not the only instance, she is also told by Binodini to leave such masculine affairs to the men and focus on the issues of household, for she is the thakurain (woman) of the house, and not the thakur. Thus, the intended audience realises that their protagonist is a strong-willed woman, one that is fearless of questioning gender-roles, in whatever capacity, that is.

However, here comes the pressing concern. How many viewers would actually be willing to accept a courageous woman protagonist, in her own capacity? For the world has always feared feminine leadership and thus forced the woman to live inside the four walls built by patriarchy. I take this opportunity to introduce to you a ‘progressive’ category of the masculine audience that has no issues with feminine authority, provided she has suffered a tragedy. Here, only her trauma can justify, naturalise and validate her occupying the cinematic space in a dominant presence.

Thus, our viewer feels a paternalistic pity for Bulbbul when she is subjected to domestic violence from Indranil. The sympathy in the masculine mind for this ‘bechari’ convinces them to allow Bulbbul to perform gender-transgressing behaviour. What is worth noting is that a hegemonic masculine character is seldom subjected to violence in a cinematic space in order to justify his dominant presence.  He is treated as the obvious benefactor to power and thus, no doubts are made about his authority and similarly, no discomfort is ever felt when a story glorifies his dominance.

Another issue that I found with the concerned movie was the method through which the domestic violence performed by Indranil was portrayed. The violence was inflicted on the protagonist when she was naked. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that the director chose this specific shot to portray violence and not any other moment, like when Bulbbul was draped in the six yards of Brahmanical patriarchy.

Right after this scene, a sexual attack, too, takes place on her by Mahendra. This scene portraying rape, too, was sexualised with the constant focus of the camera on the body[1] of Bulbbul. The scene becomes a mere substitute for sex[2], with hopes to satisfy the voyeuristic demands of the patriarchal viewer.

These two scenes of male gaze served multiple purposes. They provided a narrative-prerequisite to allow a female protagonist to subsequently perform acts of revenge for how could a woman ever engage in acts of subjective justice if she herself has not been violated by masculine weapons of objectification. The protagonist’s body was turned into a mere prop for narrative purposes. Regrettably, a female protagonist is required to trade her trauma to dominate the screen[3].

I believe that Bulbbul was violated not only by the men in the movie but also by the director and the script-writer since they did not respect the legitimacy of Bulbbul’s character merely because she was an individual; her existence was not a reason valid enough. Only the violation of her ‘honour’ made her life worth portraying.

Secondly, the sexualisation of these scenes attempted to gratify the scopophilic pleasure of the masculine audience[4].  Consequently, the director and its audience violated the privacy of Bulbbul since they were not entitled to witness the sexualised infliction of trauma[5]on the protagonist.

Lastly, in order to compensate for this erotization of violence, the revenge scenes were portrayed where Bulbbul attacked various perpetrators. Indeed, the director attempted to create a balance between the sexualisation of violence and consequent acts of revenge, however, is it ever possible to quantify trauma in order to superficially balance it[6]? I believe not.

These scenes could have been shot from a feminist gaze, too, with no focus on a naked and sexualised body. A verbal mention that Bulbbul was sexually attacked could have been enough, only if a feminist gaze was present, but it was not. Indeed, to move a step further, my feminist imagination would have welcomed Bulbbul, even if she was not violated before. She owed no justification to the patriarchal audience to occupy the screen space because men have done it for ages, both, on-screen and off.

Lastly, it is imperative to acknowledge the caste of our protagonist, Bulbbul. She was an ‘upper’ caste woman. I believe that it was her caste that provided her with the safety to participate in acts where she could murder other men. Such an emotional, financial, physical and legal security would not have been enjoyed by a ‘lower’ caste protagonist for she would have no such capital to rely on.

Bulbbul as Chudail
The chudhail magically turned into a Hindu ‘upper’ caste devi in the end when Bulbbul’s identity was revealed. Credits: Netflix

Contrastingly, Bulbbul had constant indirect access to legal documents concerning cases because of Satya. Additionally, she also found herself in physical proximity to her targets because of her caste privilege. A ‘lower’ caste woman could have been murdered if she was found anywhere in the proximity of the regulated ‘upper’ caste spaces shown in the movie. This provided her ease to engage in these acts.

Indeed, while the movie provided a constant reference to a chudhail throughout the movie, the chudhail magically turned into a Hindu ‘upper’ caste devi in the end when Bulbbul’s identity was revealed. I believe that Dr Sudip would have called the police if the chudhail was a ‘lower’ caste woman. However, the Savarna caste solidarity that Bulbbul shared with Dr Sudip and Satya allowed her to not face any detrimental consequences, a privilege that would not have been extended to a ‘lower’ caste woman.

Therefore, I live in hopes of witnessing more cinematic material inspired by Ambedkarite feminism in the future.

Notes

[1] Plummer, J., 2020. BIRDS OF PREY, TRAUMA, AND THE FEMALE GAZE. [online] Book Riot. Available at: <https://bookriot.com/birds-of-prey-movie-2/> [Accessed 1 July 2020].

[2] Gopalan, L., 1997. The Avenging Women in Indian Cinema. Oxford Academic, 38(1).

[3] Gopalan, L., 1997. The Avenging Women in Indian Cinema. Oxford Academic, 38(1).

[4] Gopalan, L., 1997. The Avenging Women in Indian Cinema. Oxford Academic, 38(1).

[5]Plummer, J., 2020. BIRDS OF PREY, TRAUMA, AND THE FEMALE GAZE. [online] Book Riot. Available at: <https://bookriot.com/birds-of-prey-movie-2/> [Accessed 1 July 2020].

[6] Gopalan, L., 1997. The Avenging Women in Indian Cinema. Oxford Academic, 38(1).

You must be to comment.
  1. FATHIMA ALTHAF

    Well written

  2. Arun Philip

    Thank you for the two terms, feminist gaze and patriarchal gaze…. Very significant..

  3. Harsh Doshi Visuals

    Yaaar, you could’ve given a Spoiler warning. 🙁

  4. Trina Talukdar

    What a great perspective – incorporating gender norms, caste, class and its nuances. Thank you for sharing that. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things about this movie I had missed thinking deeply about.

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