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Honest Review of Bulbbul: Why the feminist horror seems problematic

  • Published at 02:47 pm July 3rd, 2020

Though the film’s setting and characters are reminiscent of Rabindranath Tagore or Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s fictions, Bulbbul looks like the lovechild of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Guillermo del Toro’s films, on steroids

The latest Netflix original film Bulbbul, produced by Bollywood superstar Anushka Sharma, has captured the attention of movie lovers of this subcontinent. The film is currently the most streamed film of the week in both Netflix Bangladesh and India. Though the debutant director Anvita Dutt’s horror looks brilliant but feels poorly written and problematic from time to time. This piece will cover different parts of the film and might contain major spoilers ahead. 

In the very first sequence, we see a young Bulbbul being married off to a rich Bengal zamindar named Indranil, played by Rahul Bose. The 19th century Bengal zamindar family consists of Indranil and his mentally stunted twin Mahendra who is married to Binodini, played by Paoli Dam. They have a younger sibling named Satya. The eight or nine year old Bulbbul primarily thinks that she is being married to the younger sibling Satya who is close to her own age. 

Though the film’s setting and characters are reminiscent of Rabindranath Tagore or Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s fictions, Bulbbul looks like the lovechild of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Guillermo del Toro’s films, on steroids.

The whole fairy tale like look is undeniably one of the best directed and best looking Indian films I have seen in recent times.

The film primarily explores very realistic problems with upper caste colonial Bengali patriarchy. From child marriage to physical and sexual abuse to even enforced widowhood, everything is seen in a single film.

There’s a scene where young Satya while meeting her child sister-in-law for the first time talks about how she is a “bit dirty,” mocking her dark skin tone but confirms that she “will work.” The eerie yet realistic conversation of a child explains how casual racism, sexism and patriarchy is deeply embedded in all us even a nine to ten year old boy whose only interest is in spooky folklore.

The film jumps forward 20 years and also deals with the age gap between Bulbbul and her husband Indranil and how she had a more romantic attraction towards the younger brother Satya. Her husband senses this tension between them and sends Satya to London to study law and beats Bulbbul in a horrific manner and completely destroys the lower part of her body.

Indranil’s mentally ill twin brother rapes her while traction on her broken ankles prevents her from moving. This is the part where things get problematic for me. In a non-linear story arc we see an “evil witch” hunting men. The poor writing makes it too easy to predict that Bulbbul herself is this Bangali Shakchunni-like demon. 

Women in our subcontinent are often beaten and abused by their husbands or relatives. The victims are in most cases silenced to protect the family honour. Yet portraying a mentally ill person as a rapist seemed borderline offensive.

The rape scene and the overdramatic Zack Snyder-esque slow mo scene where she was being beaten by her husband also felt wrong and even glorified.

I understand that my psyche might be conditioned by the patriarchy of this region. But I fail to find the logic behind her killing spree.

To the trained eye, this might be just a work of fiction or even a feminist fantasy that has no relation to social reform. Yet Bollywood must realize that portraying a rape victim as a “demon” or a woman who is “beyond repair” is very problematic to the uneducated eyes. 

What I can applaud is how a film like Bulbbul has sparked a conversation in our society about gender roles, abuse, feminism and more. Constructive debates on such issues can give us a push towards a better and equal society.

Siam Raihan is a film editor, producer and a former sub-editor at the Dhaka Tribune’s Showtime Desk

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