Bulbbul: Narrating Indian misogyny through an old folklore

SPOILER ALERT!!

For some reason, while writing this one, I am reminded of a dialogue from the Hindi movie Tanu Weds Manu: “Bhaiya, kya hai na, jo aadmi hota hai wo marne ke baad bhoot banta hai lekin jo aurat hoti hai wo chudail ki chudail hi rahti hai.” (A man turns into a ghost after death but a woman is always a witch, dead or alive). While the trailer of the movie Bulbbul really intrigued me, I had to wait for a week to watch this movie because I wanted to watch it with a friend. Thanks to the stringent lockdown restrictions, she had to ditch me on this and I had to watch it alone. Since I missed the chance to discuss the movie in person, now I am motivated to share my two cents on the blog.

This paragraph contains the story plot. You can skip it if you have already watched the movie. The movie revolves around Bulbbul, a girl who was married off at the age of 5-6 to a rich zamindaar (landlord) Indranil who is at least 20 years elder to her. While the poor girl didn’t even understand the meaning of wedding, she was under an impression that she was married to Satya, Indranil’s younger brother who was of Bulbbul’s age. Indranil also has a younger twin brother Mahendra who is mentally challenged. Mahendra is married to Binodini who is jealous of the five-year old Bulbbul, who gets the title of Badi Bahu. Since every one is elder to Bulbbul and is busy in their own world, Satya remains the only friend and companion Bulbbul has. They grow up to become best friends and are shown to be bonded in a platonic love relationship. After being instigated continuously by Binodini, Indranil gets suspicious of the relationship between Bulbbul and Satya and sends Satya to London on pretext of higher studies. Bulbbul is devastated and lonely. She tears off and burns a writing journal she and Satya used to maintain to co-create stories. Indranil sees some pieces of the burning papers that carry the names Satya and Bulbbul. He gets miffed and in his anger, beats Bulbbul mercilessly and almost chops off her legs. Indranil then leaves home forever. Taking advantage of Indranil’s absence and Bulbbul’s condition, Mahendra rapes and suffocated Bulbbul to death. At the same moment, by the grace of Mahakali, Bulbbul resurrects. She’s no more the innocent and chirpy young girl but turns into a confident and authoritative woman, a Thakurain (Landlady). Since that day, men in the village start getting killed mysteriously, Mahendra being one of them. After staying away for 5 years, Satya returns to village. Binodini tells him that Mahendra was killed by a chudail (a witch). Satya doesn’t believe her and starts his own investigation of the deaths. He gets suspicious of Doctor Sudip’s involvement in the murders as well as pissed off of his proximity to Bulbbul. He captures Sudip to present him before the court for murder trials but on the way, the witch attacks and kills his carriage driver. Satya shoots the witch with his gun but can’t see her face. She appears before Sudip and he’s shocked to know that the witch is none other than Bulbbul. While he tries to stop Satya from killing the witch, the forest is set on fire. Only when Sudip calls out the witch as badi bahu Satya realises he has killed Bulbbul. He repents and leaves the village not before writing to Indranil who returns to the village after a year. While he sleeps in his room in his manor, Bulbbul appears to take her revenge. The movie ends here.

My interpretation of the movie

While the story is categorized under horror genre, there was almost nothing horror about it. For some reason, I felt good after watching the movie. More than a revenge drama story, it appeared to be a metaphor for the patriarchal society we live in where each character personified an aspect. Here’s how I interpreted the movie through each character:

  1. Bulbbul:
    • Bulbbul personified an innocent girl child who did nothing in her life except obeying her elders and the men of the house. She was only five when she was married off without even being told that she was going to be sent away. She dozed off during her wedding and was horrified not to find her pishima around on waking up. Yet no one sympathized with her except Satya.
    • The most ironic scene of the movie was when after marriage, Mahendra came to her, trying to touch her. Indranil shooed him off and justified his behavior by telling a five-year-old Bulbbul that Mahendra, a man in his late twenties perhaps, is a kid. Girls are expected to behave as women right from their childhood while men can afford to continue being immature even as an adult.  
    • Bulbbul spent her entire childhood and adolescence craving for warmth and love that she received only from Satya. Her love was pure and innocent. Her behavior conformed to all the societal norms. Yet she was punished by Indranil because she wasn’t even allowed to feel affection for the only person who cared for her. At the same time, it was alright for Indranil to have an illicit relationship with Binodini.
    • Bulbbul was brutally raped by Mahendra, her own brother-in-law. Yet instead of being supported, her suffering was normalized by Binodini. Instead of getting the justice she deserved, she was asked to keep quiet.
    • Bulbbul’s only sin was her trust in her family. The day her trust was broken, the innocence within her died and a fighter was born. And even if it was a divine power who avenged for powerless women’s suffering, she was termed evil by her own kind (Binodini).
  • Satya:
    • Satya represents the elusive love and companionship that every girl/woman dreams of in all her relationships. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that a woman seldom experiences unconditional love. There’s a long list of to-dos for her to earn that love and respect.
    • Perhaps Satya too loved Bulbbul but for him, his societal relationship , that of a brother-in-law overpowered his love. He loathed Bulbbul’s new version, had suspicion about her friendship with Sudip and even asked her to leave the village forever. Bulbbul had to lose her life to make him realize his mistakes.
  • Indranil & Mahendra: The fact that both the characters were played by the same person supports my interpretation. Indranil and Mahendra represent two sides of the same coin- patriarchy. While Indranil represents the civilized face of the orthodox system, Mahendra stands for the brute male ego. While Indranil appeared to be just, loving and protective for Bulbbul till the time she was loyal to him, the moment he had a doubt about her character, he became the judge, gave her a befitting punishment, stripped her of her respect and status and left her at the disposal of his alter-ego. Mahendra who had always been on the lookout for opportunity to assault Bulbbul but was stopped as well as sheltered by Indranil, finally got his way. But he wasn’t termed guilty. Isn’t this the same way how the society works?
  • Binodini: There is a very popular saying, “Women are women’s worst enemies”. Binodini is a metaphor for this. She is not a villain but a victim who has learnt her life lessons the hard way and values survival more than fighting. She’s hurt, angry and cynical. She feels undervalued. She has realized that she’s nothing but a replaceable object. However, she doesn’t have the power to confront the person who replaced her so she chooses to attack the new object of his affection, she was replaced with. Right from the beginning, she’s jealous of Bulbbul- for her luck, her status and the affection she has received. She neither loves nor hates Bulbbul. She’s just turned stone-hearted. Her pain was clearly visible when she narrated her own story to Bulbbul while cleaning her wounds after she was raped by Mahendra.
  • Dr. Sudip: Dr. Sudip represents the rare tribe of feminists- the ones who sympathize with women’s suffering- those who truly support equality for women- the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who played a major role in getting sati pratha (a custom where a widow self-immolated herself along with her husband’s dead body) abolished. Unfortunately, they are often misunderstood, insulted, and discouraged. In the absence of Satya, he was the only one to support Bulbbul, give her support and strength, heal her.

Bulbbul’s transformation: Before vs After

There was a time when Bulbbul was a coy and innocent bride. She had no interest in fine silks and gold ornaments. All she liked was writing stories with her brother-in-law Satya. Her life revolved around him. Although she knew how hard her life was- being married to an old man, being lusted by her own brother-in-law, being manipulated and taunted by her sister-in-law. But every thing was alright till the time Satya was around.

Bulbbul was everything a woman ought to be as per the society. She obeyed everyone around her, wasn’t a threat to anyone. She accepted all the wrongs without questioning them. Her life was picture perfect until the day her heart betrayed her. The look on her face- trying to hide her broken heart, applying a ton of control, embarrassment evident in her eyes; she was ashamed but helpless at the same time. What was her fault? That she wasn’t a robot that could be programmed to respect the namesake relationship and forget the real bond.

Whatever it was, she was the only one to bear the consequences of her love. The pain, the shame, the invasion- she couldn’t take it anymore and something died in her- the woman and a goddess were born. But was it a goddess actually or a witch or simply a woman who realized her true potential? A woman who gave up on all the fake bonds she had? A woman who brought justice to perpetrators in her own way? How can society call her a woman? Isn’t a woman supposed to be meek? Isn’t she supposed to follow? She is never meant to be a hero. So, let’s term her supernatural. If her actions bring glory to the heroes of the society, she’s a Goddess like Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Rani Laxmibai. If not, she’s a witch, demon, evil like Surpanakha, Tadka. Hence, Bulbbul was a witch for the men and Goddess Kali for the women.

The controversial song: Kalankini Radha

And while I talk about the Goddesses, how can I forget about the controversy around the song Kalankini Radha (a Bengali folk song that means ill-reputed Radha). I came across some IMDB ratings that said this:

To be very honest, I just could not hold my laughter seeing this. I am thankful to God, these people didn’t exist on earth when stories on Radha and Krishna were being written. Being trained in classical dance, I have grown up dancing on verses from Geeta Govinda. Lord Krishna isn’t only my favorite God but he’s my muse too. Anyone who truly loves Krishna and has actually watched the movie would understand how apt the song was to the situation in the movie. Radha was Krishna’s soul but she was married to someone else. And even though their love was spiritual and platonic, in the eyes of the society, it was wrong. Bulbbul’s and Satya’s relationship was similar which made Binodini taunt her by singing this song.

Overall, I really liked this movie. Of course, I am no critic to comment on the technical aspect of the movie but as an audience, I truly enjoyed it. I am glad movies like Stree and Bulbbul are being made that are not only entertaining but also portray some real issues through interesting plots. I am loving it. If you have watched this movie too, do let me know what you think of it.

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