Since Bollywood's inception, the industry has failed to produce an out-an-out horror movies worth watching. Invariably, the genre of "horror" in Bollywood films is paired with other box-office friendly genres such as romance, as supernatural beings must not get in the way of the films' commercial success.
However, Netflix's Bulbbul is an exception. Set in the late 19th century British-ruled Bengal, Bulbbul tells the story of a free-spirited and wide-eyed child bride whose quest for a kindred soul and kindness pulls her into deep peril. The film comes with a metaphor so strong and relatable, it rattles the foundations of a patriarchal society.
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Bulbbul, the titular character and the protagonist, suddenly has her fate sealed as she is turned into an obedient child-bride to the much older Indranil Thakur (Rahul Bose), when she is married off to him in 1881. She lives in his zamindar house with his mentally challenged identical twin Mahendra Thakur, Mahendra's wife Binodini (Paoli Dam), and younger brother Satyajit Thakur (Avinash Tiwary).
A young Bulbbul wakes up inside a palki. As reality unfolds in front of her, Bulbbul finds out the man she got married to is not who she thought he was.
She arrives in the Thakur family mansion thinking life is all about fun and games with Satyajit - who is her age. As the movie progresses, the mansion's toxicity begins to reveal itself. The palace houses twisted relationships, dysfunctional families and perversions while the women inside it, Bulbbul and Binodini, are turned against each other.
Her friendship with Satyajit steadily grows deeper as they grow older together. Fast forward 20 years, Satyajit is seen coming back home and he is informed that a string of grotesque murders have taken place while he was away, reportedly committed by a witch.
Portrayed as flashbacks throughout the movie, it is shown that Indranil decided to send Satyajit away to London sensing the magnitude of Bulbbul's feelings , for his younger brother – which is eerily romantic and a desperate attempt to leech onto a relationship she finds trustworthy.
Never having been apart for a single day since the wedding, Bulbbul is grief-stricken and heartbroken. She attempts at drowning her sorrows in a tub-filled with water but Indranil gets filled in about Satyajit and Bulbbul, and enraged, he beats Bulbbul's ankles with a metal rod until it breaks and twists backwards. Hence, the "witch", as defined by the men, comes into being.
On the verge of death and with broken bones, Bulbbul is bedridden. Adding to her misery, Mahindra rapes her as she screams in anguish - succumbing to death. And although the scene seemed to melt in at first glance, it did play into the trope that a woman must be stripped clean off of her dignity and violently broken before she can rise from the ashes.
The hints at the intrinsic oppression, and their repercussions, pile on and reach the peak when a seemingly dead Bulbbul is resurrected as a woman transformed from a naive housewife to a vengeful avenger - targeting men who cause trauma to women of any age.
The movie depicts the real horrors of a patriarchal society that prey on weaker women. The ancient trope of a bloodthirsty witch with feet twisted backwards in scary deshi folklore acts as an onscreen metaphor to create dread and fear.
The director, Anvita Dutt, mixes the feudal with the supernatural, mythological and the fable-sque to strike at the putrid core of patriarchy in a moving and powerful manner.
Apart from great storytelling, there are many classic Bangla literary references in Bulbbul - chief among which is Rabindranath Tagore's Chokher Bali - the names Binodini and Mahendra, but the reference is also portrayed through the messy strands of the relationship between a young widow, a child-bride and a brother-in-law. Satyajit Ray's Charulata is shown a different world through an interloper - the girl trapped in domesticity.
The film's red colour grading during the blood moon suggests "Crimson Peak" influences. And the corporeal shape of the witch beamed a little too literal in visual translation - some mystery shrouding the figure could have elevated the element of thrill.
On the flip side, the beautiful recreation of the centuries-old Bengal with the location, costume and makeup gave off a robust aroma of the 1800s British-ruled Bengal.
Overall, Bulbbul, although scripted as a fable, is still sharply relevant in today's society. It is a powerfully feminist and revisionist tragedy of a woman wronged - told with precision through the witch, who is just a woman on a quest to avenge other women wronged by society and men.