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Bulbbul: A Critique On The Representation Of Women In Horror Movies

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In our fast-paced life, even if we believe in ghosts, demons and devils, we don’t get enough time to think about them. Once in a while, we watch a horror movie and imagine the ghost of a woman who has killed her children hiding behind our closet in the darkness of night. 

Since childhood, we have heard a lot of tales about chetkins or dayans who drape in white sarees and have weird feet, wandering around at night, hunting people, especially men. Many such narratives find their ways into movies. But have we ever wondered why women ghosts are more common and more dangerous? 

Recently, I watched the much talked about film Bulbbul. A story of a young girl, Bulbbul or Badi Bahu as she is called in the movie, married when she is just a kid to a man, Indranil Thakur.

Still from the film Bulbbul

Set in the late 19th and early 20th century Bengal, the story exposes patriarchy and hypocrisy of the rich people living in havelis. In the family of three brothers, the eldest one marries an infant. The younger one, Mahendra, is mentally challenged and is married to Binodini. And the youngest one, Satya, is the centre of attention of Bulbbul since the first day of their meeting. 

Behind the closed doors of the haveli, the picture is quite different. Thakur Dada beds his sister-in-law Binodini, who later is threatened by Badi Bahu’s arrival in the house. Badi Bahu is similar in age with Satya and thus, spends most of her time with him, learning, playing and creating scary stories. 

The main highlight amidst all this is the deaths of men at the hands of a mysterious churail. A fascinating take on the tradition of folktales about churails, Bulbbul offers a picturesque approach to the mystery of how women are transformed into witches. 

This reminds me of an essay — Fears and Fantasies: Controlling and Creating Desires or Why Women are Witches, by Nilanjana Gupta. In this interesting essay, Gupta discusses the reasons why women have been represented as witches in traditional narratives. The key reason to portray women as monstrous “others” is to dehumanise them and, thus, facilitate men to control them and keep their power in check. 

This, she explains through the Marang Baru folklore of Santhals. According to this tale, women, disguised as their husbands, learn witchcraft from Marang Baru, their chief God. When men go to Marang Baru to learn the art, he is not able to repeat the already shared knowledge and the men cannot accept the power of women. So he teaches them the art of overcoming witchcraft. 

One interesting thing that is common in all the witches or female evil spirits is that they have a pleasing appearance.

Still from the movie Stree

This can be exemplified by the “Stree” in the film Stree, where she allures men with her seductive voice and once the men turn around and face her, she takes them away without their clothes. 

Not only that, but the character of Shraddha Kapoor also uses her sexual charms to convince the hero to defeat the Stree (apparently only the hero could). 

The stories involve and revolve around men and their sexual fantasies of mating with beautiful, luscious women which leads them to their doom. Men have long feared the exertion of women’s sexual desires and, thus, there are hardly any narratives where women have freely expressed their sexual fantasies. 

The expression of female desires is promiscuous behaviour and unacceptable of a woman in our society. The stories of witches thus centre the male desires and end with men achieving supremacy over the female. 

But this movie slightly differs, though not completely, in this narration. The chauvinist men are seen to be physically and mentally harassing their wives for which they are punished to death by the churail. The story is not a straightforward portrayal of the failure of men to deliver their duty towards their wife. Still, it brings to limelight the exploitation women have to suffer at the hands of men and how each one wrongs a woman to overshadow his immoral conduct. 

In a way, the story suggests that men harass women and when women raise a voice against it they term them as dayans and churails. Badi Bahu had to almost lose her legs because she loved Satya and in turn Satya declared her immoral. She says “you are all the same” and that is enough explanation for everything. 

This may seem a typical description of women as victims at the hands of men. But the stereotypes run deeper in our blood and prevent women from wanting and desiring.

Still from the movie Bulbbul

The feet of Bulbbul are symbolised as her expression of desires. The legs become the centre of attention since the first scene of the film. The tiny but firm, tree climbing feet of Bulbbul run freely till the controlling toe rings and anklets cage her. Those legs are denied the cover of shoes or footwear even when she is a grown woman. 

The rigid, controlling ornaments are stuck to her skin during the beatings signifying that her behaviour needs to be kept in check. Once the rings are removed from her flesh, she becomes free, fearless Devi who protects and avenges every wound of all the women in the village. The twisted legs turn the dynamics of society where “she” overpowers “him” and becomes the saviour. 

Badi Bahu dies and gives birth to Bulbbul, the churail and the Devi. Not only this, but she also uses her feet to charm the doctor, who she may be mildly attracted to, and they become the sole reason for her to meet him. 

That brings us to the character of the doctor, Sudip, the most charming man. But his contributions in the life of Bulbbul is of a selfless, devoted friend who genuinely cares for her and never crosses his limits. He has seen her in the worst condition and it’s Sudip who she reveals all her secrets to. The man who knows self-control, does not judge a woman and can maintain his calm even when he is falsely accused of heinous crimes, are rare species, maybe even on the verge of extinction. 

The character of Binodini is also fascinating. She is a typical woman whose desires are crushed when she is married to a mentally challenged man, which would not even give her the title of being the eldest daughter-in-law of the house. Her monologue in the film reveals the misunderstandings society has about women’s desires. 

The actors have performed their characters immaculately and the cinematography is excellent with some overwhelming frames in the film. The colour scheme used in the movie is exciting as it defines the mood of the protagonist as well as the plot. For instance, the colour of the moon since the advent of the witch in the village changes to red, setting the mood of rage and revenge. 

The film is a unique experience overall and is different from the typical “women as victims” films. The balance of the mystic and reality is very well handled in the movie.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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