In the intricate tapestry of Bollywood, where feminist narratives have only recently begun to find genuine expression, Bulbbul emerges as a rare gem. The film seamlessly blends horror with a heartfelt exploration of gender equality in colonial, casteist, and feudal India. This Anvita Dutt directorial debut, produced by renowned actress Anushka Sharma's Clean Slate Films, navigates the haunting terrain of women's liberation from cultural, social, and sexual exploitation. It does so by drawing compelling parallels with Hindu mythology and ultimately reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality.

Set against the backdrop of 1881 Bengal, Bulbbul follows the life of its eponymous protagonist, a child bride who matures into an enigmatic woman. She presides over a household burdened by a painful past and supernatural murders plaguing her village. This plot weaves a nuanced tapestry of Hindu mythological stories that echo the struggles of Draupadi, Sita, and the fierce liberating energy of Maa Kali.

Still from Bulbbul, Mahendra pulls Bulbbul’s hair despite her unwillingness. Image courtesy of the Film Companion.

The plot begins with only five-year-old Bulbbul's marriage to the “Bade Thakur,” an adult man who has two younger siblings: Mahendra, who has mental disabilities, and Satya, who is closer to Bulbul’s age. This makes Bulbbul’s story parallel to that of Draupadi's predicament in the Mahabharata, who, although married off to Arjuna, becomes the “property” of all his four siblings, just as Bulbbuls becomes a companion to the Thakur brothers. This invites a discussion of a woman’s role in marriage within traditional Indian households, where they are expected to integrate into their husband’s families while denouncing the family in which they were raised.

Still from Bulbbul, young Bulbbul and Satya share ghost stories. Image courtesy of the Indie Journal.

The youngest of the Thakur brothers, Satya, is akin to Krishna for Draupadi. He forms a unique bond with Bulbbul, highlighting the disparity between societal expectations and individual relationships. Especially a need for balance between the two and the importance of giving women the ability to choose their romantic relationships instead of having a familial affair. 

As their friendship grows with their age, Bulbbul’s husband eventually suspects her affection for Satya and punishes her for it, echoing the struggles of Sita in the Ramayana where Sita  “agnipariksha,”  had to go through fire to prove her innocence. Though Bulbbul and Satya were never engaged in a physical affair, only Bulbbul had to pay the consequences of such a predicament. 

Meanwhile, Satya was sent to study abroad and was largely unaware of what his brother was doing to Bulbbul. This part of the plot reflects much of the misogynistic narratives that we see around stories of affairs in society, where emphasis is always placed on women. Women are portrayed as devious, husband stealers, while men walk stigma-free despite also participating in the affair. 

Still from Bulbbul, Bulbbul is reborn as Maa Kali, liberated and powerful. Image courtesy of the Voice of Fashion.

The domestic violence and sexual assault she endured, which led to her death, transformed Bulbbul into a manifestation of a supernatural creature, perceived to be a manifestation of Maa Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death, time, and destruction. Through these changes, Bulbbul is liberated from societal constraints, takes leadership of the household, murders abusive men, and frees oppressed women within her reach. The film's portrayal of Bulbbul as Kali, the liberator, challenges traditional notions of female agency and empowerment.

The film also draws a powerful analogy between Bulbbul's story and the exploitation of Mother Earth. The men in Bulbbul symbolize human greed. They continue their exploitation despite her protests, leading to Bulbbul's metaphorical burning and rebirth, akin to the Earth's cyclical nature. When Bulbbul burns, so does an entire forest, yet still, life grows from the ashes.

Still from Bulbbul, Bulbbul watches the forest burn and waits for her demise. Image courtesy of Signal Horizon.

While Bulbbul as Maa Kali responds violently to structural violence in a way that feels justifiable, the film subtly challenges the notion that violence is the ultimate solution as she too, burns in the end. It emphasizes the need for ideological dialogue to dismantle deep-rooted patriarchal ideas that will bring lasting change for women and gender equality.

In conclusion, Bulbbul transcends the realm of Bollywood horror, offering a poignant and genuine feminist narrative. Through its mythological parallels, powerful symbolism, and technical brilliance, the film elevates the discourse on gender equality, challenging traditional norms and narratives. An exploration of Bulbbul is not just a cinematic experience but a journey into the heart of Indian feminist storytelling done right.

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