Negotiating the Divine and the Demonic: A Woman’s Plight in ‘Bulbbul’
By Angshuman Mukhopadhyay
As genres go, horror is also the least friendly of the storytelling patterns. If genres were houseguests, romantic comedies would always be cooking you dinner, while historical dramas regaled you with stories. . . . If horror were a houseguest, it would smash the china, flood the bathroom, and while you were cleaning off the gum it stuck to the living room TV, it would be trying to burn the house down (35, The Philosophy of Horror).
Philip Tallon’s intriguing metaphor, although unique, represents horror as an inartistic and temperamentally destructive genre, a houseguest whom we will never think of inviting twice; and yet we do. The horror genre attracts us with a lure of the forbidden, but it sustains that attraction by appealing to our sense of moral violation, fear, as well as a sense of disgust and loathing consequent upon a split of the subject, something that Kristeva’s ‘abject’ refers to. Even though not a staunch lover of melting or hacked bodies, and gore-fest, I have a penchant for a slow-burn horror tale that is often too strong to ignore, as a result of which the rather non-generic Bulbbul by Anvita Dutta seems riveting despite a few flaws in her craft pointed out by some film critics. The present article tries to probe into Bulbbul, dubbed as a supernatural thriller, and a classic gothic tale dealing with a story of revenge and justice, to bring to the fore the question of women’s agency, lost, and then regained through a mysterious transformation of Bulbbul into something that is at once divine and demonic.
Like many other horror movies and gothic tales, Bulbbul relies heavily on tropes – domination, injustice, and sexual violence followed by retribution and revenge. More often than not, a woman, or a vulnerable individual is initially victimized and the horror intensifies when the victim, likely a ghostly entity now, unleashes bloody violence to exact vengeance. In all these, horror is often implicit and the moral conspicuous; the one who needs to be afraid is the wrong-doer, an evil genius, one who is the perpetrator of a criminal offence. We only bear witness to the unraveling of an uncanny tale with a willing suspension of disbelief. In Bulbbul, the innocent girl does not die in spite of a terrible physical assault, rape, and emotional deprivation; instead, she transforms into a woman of a superhuman calibre of assuming the role of a ‘chudail’ to punish the wrong-doer who is invariably a man who has victimized other women. That she is the agent of a dark force, murderous in her intent, a ‘chudail’ in the true sense of the term is a story circulated in the village mostly by its men and believed in by all and sundry. Nevertheless, the women, however secretly, must acknowledge to themselves that the unseen and much dreaded ‘chudail’ is also a bringer of justice through vengeance. Since the story is firmly set in Bengal Presidency in the 19th century, the obfuscation of the margin between the divine and the demonic inevitably reminds us of the goddess, Kali – a persistent motif in the movie as well. Anvita deftly blends fear and awe to the effect of modifying horror which however has its own place in the subtle suggestions of the colour palate used with red dominating the scenes of the forest, the blood red moon invoking the demon-woman, the dark sinister ambience of the palatial house that holds dirty secrets, etc. The blood-red moon is not of necessity an ominous sign implying the demon-woman’s time, but it can also be interpreted as having a strong connection with the female body and menstruation, an issue that perhaps deserves a separate discourse.
In Bulbbul, the story of the ‘chudail’ or the demon-woman is assimilated in the narrative from the very beginning – Satya’s story that draws little Bulbbul into the vortex of fear and desire, which features a demon-woman that comes to grab the princess and kills her, evolves into a symbol for the metanarrative. In the beginning, the divine was not intricately associated with the demonic in Bulbbul and Satya’s story, but it becomes so from the time the concern for retribution and justice is incorporated into the narrative. Interestingly, the horror genre has as much an intimate connection with women as it does with the idea of revenge and justice: Jess Joho enlists at least forty women-centric horror movies to refer to the various dimensions of “one of the most fruitful marriages in all of film.” Joho further comments that, the horror genre is becoming more and more socially inclined and fit for social commentary; it gives chances to relatively less known film makers to make their mark as well. In most of the films Joho mentions, a woman is a victim turned victimizer; for instance, Carrie (1976) – this movie, directed by Brian De Palma, adapted from the novel of Stephen Fry bearing the same title presents Carrie, a young girl who is bullied and disliked by her peers developing the power of telekinesis and wreaking havoc afterwards. Bulbbul too presents the young bride of Indranil transforming into the demon-woman followed by a heartbreaking episode. Even the image of the deformed/twisted ankles of the witch is provided with a perfect rationale in the case of Bulbbul who experiences tremendous physical agony from Indranil’s physical torture followed by rape by Mahendra; it is as if from the brink of annihilation she makes a wondrous and unexpected return to take revenge, and seeking justice. Her first victim is Mahendra, Indranil’s mentally- challenged twin brother who at times may appear to be Indranil’s alter ego. Anvita never misses to adjust the camera focus on Bulbbul’s feet and her love for climbing trees from the very beginning, thus making her transformation into a witch, perhaps, not entirely incredible. The victims of the witch are men; the women face the brunt, but are not killed – they are the victims of patriarchy and the witch evidently shares her victimhood with other women. Quite understandably, therefore, Binodini, in spite of her sexual jealousy, and self-regarding instincts is destined to an unfortunate widowhood, whereas the men for the violent assertion of their agency are never spared Bulbbul’s wrath.
The question of seeing the divine and the demonic as intricately interwoven, at least in the image of Kali, the goddess is something pertinent to the Bengali, Hindu people – the wrathful goddess with a lolling tongue red with the blood of the evil doers is a perfect image to be acclimatized by the horror movie genre. Although the connection of the demonic and the divine, as already mentioned, is not innate to the narrative of Bulbbul, it gradually becomes a part of it out of a conspicuous feminist concern of seeing the witch of patriarchy as a goddess in the story of a hapless woman. Instead of no moon, a time usually concurrent with the worship of the mother goddess Kali, we have a blood-red moon when the witch appears. On one such occasion, Mahendra was killed; in fact, the conflation of the murder (not a sacrifice though!) and the puja performed for the goddess evokes the connection which has been erstwhile subdued in the narrative. In the image of Kali, the conflicting forces are combined – an essential duality is encompassed by the goddess, not just of creation and destruction, but of the demonic and the divine, voluptuous and untamable on the one hand and the destroyer of all desires on the other. Moreover, “[W]ithin Hindu cosmology, where time and the universe are eternal and cyclical, and all matter is subject to the laws of karma, human and animal life is located at a midway point between the divine and the demonic spheres — i.e. realms where either supremely virtuous or supremely sinful souls incarnate as powerful, super-human beings” (Nika Kuchuk 28). Bulbbul’s transformation into a medium carrying out the divine dispensation, therefore, is the most convenient trope; in the popular imagination, the witch has the agency to kill the men who have sinned just as the goddess has. Kali’s dubious image comes to serve the critical purpose of seeing the divine and the demonic in a complex interconnection. Since the West has avidly embraced the image of the dark goddess, Kali became an eponymous symbol for feminist spiritual explorations and a radical force against patriarchy. Nika Kuchuk further suggests in her dissertation, “It is in part due to such resonance that Kali’s Western reincarnation also takes on traits of other dark goddesses . . . . The nexus of anger, terror, darkness and potential freedom is powerfully represented in such myths as those of Ereshkigaal, Hel, Sekhmet, Medea, Cerridwen, Hecate, and culminates in the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess” (127). Beyond religiosity or belief in witchcraft, the image of Kali, therefore, lends itself to a wide range of social and cultural appropriation, interpretations and misinterpretations. In the context of the film, therefore, there is juxtaposition in terms of contrasting images and implications keeping the feminist issues of women’s agency in mind.
Bulbbul’s transformation, however, is not known to many, though she evolves almost as a matriarch with absolute power in the absence of the men– Sudip, the doctor who treats Bulbbul, and Bindoni who has an inkling of the entire plight of Bulbbul are perhaps the only ones aware of the real identity of the witch. Even Satya, reentering (after twenty years) the once-familiar world like an interloper, can only get access to the truth when it is too late. His exposure to the western canon of thought and belief made him incredulous, even though the stories he wrote with Bulbbul were, it seemed, all too fresh in his mind. The initial rejection of and resistance to the ‘reality’ of a witch haunting and killing men is consequent upon his long absence from the place, which further aggravated by sexual jealousy insulates him from the truth that is a little too incredible for him. Nevertheless, there is something uncanny about the place that he returns to, and that is felt by him as well. More than anything else, however, the movie leans on the uncanny for its effect – the unfamiliar or the ‘unheimlich’. Freud explores in his study a wide range of the word’s etymological resonance to suggest to what extent the implications of the word ‘uncanny’ can be stretched, or, to what effect it can be used with certain aptness: from being ‘unhomely’ or unfamiliar to something that is demonic, gruesome, ghastly, secret and even sacred (in the sense of the veil that surrounds the divine). Bulbbul’s mysterious smile, her commanding personality, everything has a quality of the uncanny about it in the context of the story; for Satya, it is more so, since he is unable to locate the innocent little girl whom he had left at home in his pursuit of western education. Interestingly enough, the growing remoteness of Satya from the world that he belonged to increased the sense of strangeness and the ‘unheimlich’. Moreover, Satya’s return from London has led to his subtle and symbolic insulation from the divine and the demonic in his homeland where the pagan religion and witchcraft can be considered as complementing each other.
The end of the story records a calamitous fall as the forest is on fire with Bulbbul, the witch inspecting the scene of destruction from the vantage point of a tall tree and finally getting consumed by the fire. Satya, of course, comes to know of the truth when the die is cast and the perilous end is unavoidable. With thousands of stories and reports about witch hunting and burning at the stake constituting significant episodes in the social history of various countries in Europe from the late 16th and early 17th century, the forest gutted in the fire and killing the witch in the film has a disturbing resonance. It is only that there is a hint that Bulbbul comes back to life rising from the ember at the end to punish Indranil who returns after Satya has left. The narrative prioritizes the uncanny in its representation of Bulbbul as both divine and demonic, and perhaps a little less human when she is all set to avenge the crime against her as well as going beyond her selfish interest to mete out justice to the other deprived women. Barbara Creed in her interesting study mentions the woman as a witch in connection with Palma’s Carrie and she suggests how “(H)istorically and mythologically, the witch has inspired both awe and dread. In ancient societies all magical powers, whether used for good or evil purposes, inspired the deepest dread amongst the members of the community. One of the most interesting aspects of the witch in earlier centuries was her role as healer” (275). Therefore, the convergence of the divine and the demonic is to a certain extent an innate aspect of the image of the woman as a witch. Anvita’s feminist discourse centering on the representation of Bulbbul, thus, convincingly gravitates towards a deliberate and perhaps otherwise questionable fusion of the divine and the demonic.
 “The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. . . . The abject has only one quality of the object — that of being opposed to I.” (1)
 The image is captured in De Palma’s Carrie as well. It is violent, disturbing and strongly sexual in its nuanced nature.
 Joho’s list of films includes the ones with women at the centre of concern as well as women as the maker.
 “To veil the divine and surround it with an aura of the uncanny” (132).
Bulbbul. Directed by Anvita Dutta, performance by Tripti Dimri,Avinash Tiwari, et al., Clean Slate Filmz, 2020.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous- Feminine: Films, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, trans. by David Mclintoch. Penguin Books, 2003.
Joho, Jess. “The Best Women-Centric and Feminist Horror Movies”. mashable.com, Oct, 16, 2020.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S.Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982.
Kuchuk, Nika. From the Temple to the Witch’s Coven: Journeying West with Kali Ma, Fierce Goddess of Transformation. Canada, 2013, MA dissertation.
Tallon, Philip. “Through a Mirror Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflections”. The Philosophy of Horror. Edited by Thomas Fahy, The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Mr. Angshuman Mukhopadhyay is an Assistant Professor of English at Prafulla Chandra College, Kolkata.
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