If we trace the history of the conventional representation of women in Indian Hindi cinema, there are a few definite attributes soaked in patriarchal history that are common to every woman character. Docility, obedience, submissive behavior, and strict adherence to the gender roles under the male gaze are the characteristics that are represented as normalized and expected behavior on the part of women. Not that there haven’t been any reforms in the depiction of the female character in the Bollywood movies, but the share of the radical movies which portray women as breaking the chains of patriarchy to make an identity of their own is fairly low. It is important to note that movies and media mold the mentality of the public to a great extent. And if the women at home are watching the movies which predominantly represent female characters as bound to private domains of the household, they will accept it as the normalized demeanor. The domestication of women characters in the movies is taking a toll on the mentality of the masses which puts the freedom and rights of girls, unmarried women, and housewives at stake.
2020 has been a very stressful and despairing year for all of us. Of course, everyone has been battling with the current state of nothingness and uncertainty, and there’s no telling how long we might have to be in this state. But did you know, “During the first four phases of the COVID-19-related lockdown, Indian women filed more domestic violence complaints than recorded in a similar period in the last 10 years.”(The HINDU). Now the reason why 2020 lockdown, domestic violence statistics, and representation of female characters in Indian cinema are being clubbed together here is because of the movie “Bulbbul” which holds prevalence in contemporary times since it offers an insight into the male psyche, even though it is set in 19th century Bengal. Crafted as a gothic genre film, it carefully combines feminist vocabulary with horror elements to bring forth the oppression of women, and how the female protagonist (Bulbbul) overturns the male supremacy to give justice to every woman in her village. It offers a sharp feminist critique of male dominance on women.
The story commences in 1881 with child bride Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) getting married to the much older, wealthy landowner Indranil (Rahul Bose). The story voices the lives of all those child brides who were married off under the false pretext, like Bulbbul who thinks she is marrying Satya who is her age. There is Indranil’s mentally challenged twin brother Mahendra (Bose in a double role) and Binodini, his wife (Paoli Dam). The only person Bulbbul feels connected with is Satya (Avinash Tiwary), Mahendra’s youngest brother who is a few years older than her. Now 20 years later, Satya, now a handsome young man recently returns from London after studying law. He arrives home to find “timid little Bulbbul transformed into the assertive young mistress of their ancestral mansion”. When Satya hears strange tales of men in the village being slaughtered by a witch (demon woman), his suspicions are raised, alongside his growing attraction for his sister-in-law, Bulbbul.
There are certain splendid nuances in the movie which throw open the long-struggling history of women under the overarching umbrella of patriarchy. Child marriage of Bulbbul to a wealthy landlord: it reflects how within the Indian tradition, girls were married off at an early age so that their womb remained ‘pure’ and ‘reserved’ for the man they were married to. Women have always been objectified and treated as objects to be exchanged between two males (husband and father) within the institution of marriage. And marriage is seen as an ultimate goal in a woman’s life to provide her with financial and social stability. In my opinion, marriage is just another license for patriarchal men to suppress women in whichever way they want. Domestic violence is another important thing that gets highlighted in the movie and it troubles the mind of the viewer to the core. When Indranil discovers Bulbbul’s attraction for Satya, and which was very natural on her part since she bonded with him from an early age; Indranil brutally beats her and breaks her feet. This is also the point in the movie when Bulbbul is raped by Indranil’s twin brother. At this point we see a metaphorical transformation of not so submissive but bubbly Bulbbul into a bold and fierce radical woman who decides to take revenge from everyone who made her life impossible and hellish, starting with her brother in law, Mahendra. She also kills other men in the village displaying similar inhuman treatment of their wives. It is in these moments, we see the interplay of Gothic and feminist elements that play out wonderfully.
The movie is not just about the injustices in the life of the female protagonist, it simultaneously incorporates the stories of women in the village and how their husbands (mis)treated them. It becomes a dense, layered narrative of multiple voices trying to underline one common root problem of patriarchy. Now, one should also pay heed to the fact that there are patriarchal women who help patriarchy sustain in society. It is because of the long internal colonization that they fail to see their suppression as suppression. They collude with patriarchy which gives them identity and subjectivity through the institution of marriage. This can be seen through the character of Binodini.
The film can be seen as a summation of how patriarchy functions and sustains, and how feminism as a movement is led by people like Bulbbul who are not the passive recipient of the ill-treatment at the hands of men. Bulbbul is a strong, engaging narrative that invites the viewers to observe the surroundings, and question the existing systemic inequalities in the society, and hence raise voice against it. Its the 21st century already and we are still struggling with the deeply dug claws of male dominance. We owe to the feminist movement that today if are able to express our opinions its because of the rights they worked hard for, putting their lives at stake. Bollywood should welcome these types of radical movies to make an impact on the mentality of the masses which demands massive transformation.