The word chudail (female demon) has an archive of its own in Indian pop-culture. Beyond novels and films, the folklore of a female supernatural entity that predominantly haunts men has penetrated into children’s stories as well. After all, Indian films, especially Tamil and Telugu language films, have metamorphosed the genre into wholesome entertainment, capitalizing our engrossment in fear and the nervous laughter that follows. Seldom do we witness films that use the supernatural facet of the story to study character traits and human reactions. Tumbbad for instance, is a landmark not just for its eerie yet alluring atmosphere, but for its infectious story-telling that emanates from the core concept of greed, which acts as the fuel impelling the narrative.
The back story of chudail is as old as the hills: Once upon a time, there lived a young lady – the most beautiful woman one can lay eyes on – who was brutally killed by a few men who lusted her. Driven by rage coupled with unfulfilled desires, her blood-thirsty soul now seeks revenge and torments men to address her plight. From the cheesy Pyaasi Aatma to well-intentioned, self-aware Stree, this has been the one-line explanation for the chudail’s existence (or non-existence).
Here is a worthy update to the age-old chudail hypothesis that reboots the entire notion (read: cliché) surrounding the thought. In Bulbbul, the horror doesn’t emerge from the violence that instigates the fantasy, but from the grimmer reality that precedes the violence. The regular pattern in Indian supernatural films is that the first and second act drench the viewer in horror/fantasy, while the reason and resolution are proffered at the beginning of the final act or end of the second act. The jump to the past timeline generally offers a break from the proceedings. For instance, if it’s a haunted house movie, we see the house in its normal state, or if the film is about a spooky ghost, we see the man/woman before they became the ghost. This is usually the part that has the least horror. Bulbbul turns the tables around. It’s the backstory of the protagonist that is suffused with sadness and horror, while the present is quite empowering. I repeat, it’s empowering. The majority of the film’s success is attributed to the fact that it’s a woman telling a woman story, that enables the film to surge past the male gaze that we are accustomed to.
Anvita Dutt’s script seamlessly amalgamates symbolism with the narrative. The first scene of the film has the titular character, aged 5, sitting on a tree, observing the bridegroom’s palanquin approach. It’s her wedding day. Her aunt then grabs her by the leg and pulls her down, literally.
There begins Bulbbul’s confinement as she is pushed into a permanent state of continual control in the pretext of marriage and bondage. In the very next scene, the young Bulbbul asks her aunt why should she wear a toe ring. After beating around the bush for a few moments, she spills the beans saying that it’s meant to keep her in control. Controlling, dominative, commanding, possessive, and all the associated synonyms befit Bulbbul’s husband, Indranil, who is visibly 30 years older than her. Although the film’s not primarily about child marriage or its adverse effects, it illustrates the loneliness women were subjected to dissented marriages with baneful spouses. The lonliness instills horror in this fairy tale. Not the chudail.
The film makes a staggering point that women who seek freedom are labeled chudail, just because they refuse to abide by society’s norms, which I’m sure have been set up by the majority to benefit them. Bulbbul never goes into the activist mode.
The saturated red tone in the present indicates Bulbbul’s supremacy, liberated from the restriction called marriage, while the cold blue tone in the past stands for her helplessness and the sense of imprisonment. There is a shot in which Bulbbul stands near the window, staring at the empty exteriors that are as empty as her. The frame replicates the inside of a prison cell, using her physical state to speak about her emotional captivity.
The film’s a perfect, consensual marriage of craft and story, Sidharth Diwan’s arresting, highly saturated frames and Amit Trivedi’s melancholic melodies go hand-in-hand, ensuring the film’s a feast of sight and sound, with an equally enriching story. The red color, though, kept me nudging about Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), a film where women use the eponymous red chilli powder to fight their perpetrators. When guaged against Bulbbul’s time frame – early 1900s – Mirch Masala is fairly modern, but both the films reflect the prevailing times. Any film that succeeds in representing the society, or stands high on cinematic aesthetics, is an important film, and on this premise, Bulbbul is a double win.
Bulbbul, written and directed by Anvita Dutt is now streaming on Netflix.
According to UNICEF’s June 2019 report, 12 million girls are married before they turn 18 every year, and in the developing world, one in nine girls is married before they turn 15. Around the world, 650 million girls and women alive today were married before they were 18.
Watch the trailer of Bulbbul here:
Miscellaneous: There are tons of videos about chudail made for children. My 4-year old neighbor is a fan of this partcular video!