Bulbbul Review: A Feminist Take on the Horror Genre

3.0 rating based on 1,234 ratings

Bulbbul is the latest release from Clean Slate Filmz, a production company run by Anushka & Karnesh Sharma. A Netflix original film written and directed by Anvita Dutt, Bulbbul is a Hindi-language supernatural drama film set in early 20th century Kolkata. With a star cast of Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam, Rahul Bose and Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the movie released on Netflix for online streaming on 24 June.

While the story is definitely original and the characters are refreshingly un-stereotypical, Bulbbul somehow still becomes predictable and a little too drawn out. Within 94 minutes, the film has some gorgeous scenes but others dragged on unnecessarily.

The premise of the film is definitely intriguing: set in 1881 Kolkata, the epicentre of the British Empire, Bulbbul (Trpti Dimri) is a young girl married off to an old Thakur, played by Rahul Bose. In her mind, she is married to the young Satya, played by Avinash Tiwary, with whom she develops a close bond. However, Satya is only Thakur’s younger brother. Envious of Bulbbul and Satya’s relationship, Thakur sends him away to London. Five years later, Satya returns to find that Bulbbul behaves more like a Thakur than a Thakurain (much to his chagrin) and there are rampant murders on the rise. The murders are linked back to Chudail: the supposed female ghost living in the forest, whose marker is her feet that are backwards. As Bulbbul’s story of the past 5 years unfolds, so do the violent secrets of the local village, where the Chudail has been making her mark more often.

For a movie that sold itself as a horror, it doesn’t really shake the audience much. Perhaps at the very beginning when young Satya was narrating the Chudail ki Kahaani to Bulbbul there were moments of hair-rising creepiness, but after that I almost expected Chudail to show up in the red forests (we’ll get to the ‘redness’ of the film in a bit). And midway, when Bulbbul’s (gorgeous) shoes and feet are centre of conversation, I had an inkling that something is up with her feet. And a little after half way through the movie, I guessed that Bulbbul is probably Chudail. The beauty, and fun, in the horror genre is the unpredictability, the ‘whodunit’, ‘who is it’ detective game that keeps the audience engaged. In order to categorize the nonlinear plot’s timelines, the present, filled with murder and the aftermath of horrible violences, is entirely in red, and the past, symbolizing Bulbbul’s childish innocence, is in multicolour. However, the red becomes too much and too jarring, making the viewing experience an uncomfortable one — a forced one. It makes the horror a bit too in-your-face, making you expect what’s coming your way.

The cast is obviously talented; Tripti Dimri was a pleasant surprise as the female lead, her Bulbbul being a powerful and fearless woman. She portrayed the journey from childish innocence to the victim of violence, and finally to an empowered, free Thakurain with much ease. It made the audience believe that time has, in fact, slipped by. Rahul Bose is undeniably fantastic, as he is in all his characters. Playing the Thakur and his mentally handicapable brother, Mahendra, simultaneously is a task that only Bose could perform with such ease. He is terrifying and yet believable, holding his ground on screen the whole time. While the script could have been tighter and better paced, the fashion and the rural beauty of their lives definitely drew me in as a viewer. It was definitely engaging to watch the luxurious lives of opulent Thakurs merging with horror folklore and the dark, misogynistic traditions thriving underneath British-ruled Kolkata. Amit Trivedi lends music to the film that is simply breathtaking in its melody and ability to turn up the creepiness. The horror in this film isn’t supposed to be a jumpy, clown-out-of-your-closet one. It’s a slow, steady, rising horror that is amplified by music that is sombre and true to 19th century Kolkata.

Bulbbul is a feminist film, but does employ the ‘damaged woman-turned witch’ trope. The whole rape-revenge genre is somehow inextricable from horror, but perhaps it’s time it shouldn’t be. The audience almost expects Bulbbul to be violated by her much older, patriarchal husband. It is expected that Bulbbul is Chudail, or becomes Chudail through the film’s progression. And while the interrelationships and characters are real and draws the audience’s attention, it doesn’t hold for the longer scenes.

After watching Paatal Lok, I wrote in my review that although the series is a masterpiece, it lacks in taking its women seriously; it’s set entirely in a gendered, man’s world. From that perspective, Bulbbul is refreshing and its storyline is an incredibly powerful one of dismantling patriarchal structures, of empowering women by starting from the family level. For once the ‘evil witch’ is shown to be a misunderstood stereotype, and the woman is not only a victim throughout. The film also depicts the complexities of women themselves within patriarchy — an institution that needs women to thrive. Binodini, played by Paoli Dam, is a fascinating study for this case: she plays a woman who perpetuates patriarchal notions herself, telling a bedridden Bulbbul that she must keep quiet and continue to live happily in the haveli. Big houses do have big secrets, after all.

All in all, Bulbbul is an original film, pushing the envelope of much-needed horror movies in India, and maintains a feminist narrative. However, it tends to be predictable and a little stretched out, perhaps in need of some tightening.

Bulbbul released on Netflix India on 24 June 2020

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