Note: This piece contains spoilers.
Anushka Sharma has once again touched the chords of our hearts with her latest production Bulbbul, currently streaming on Netflix. Set in the Bengal of 1800s, Bulbbul is a haunting tale of the oppression women were subjected to in families that kept adding feathers of progressive thinking in their caps. Not just Bulbbul, films such as Pari and Stree have also deconstructed the fables of witches to present narratives that strike at the very heart of patriarchy.
These movies ask: the importance of boundaries, consequences of a misstep and the result of breaking free - are these the only things that should govern a woman’s life?
Why is it that a lady with a cause and a voice has always been labelled a ‘chudail’?
‘Bulbbul’ & The Chains of Oppression
Anushka Sharma’s latest production reverses the idea of a fairytale. Anvita Dutt sets her story in Bengal Presidency (1881), and she blends the popular fables of chudails (witches) to hit hard at the rotten core of patriarchy. Bulbbul opens with a Bengali wedding in all its glory. We see a young boy Satya (Avinash Tiwary) accompanying his brother Indranil (Rahul Bose), the groom, and his mentally challenged twin brother Mahendra to the royally decked out mandap. As the bride’s pishima (aunt) goes around the house looking for Bulbbul, we see a pair of tiny feet deftly jumping across the branches of a tree. The trailer itself gives us a glimpse that Bulbbul is the story of a child bride, a rotten practice imposed upon by the patriarchy.
As Bulbbul gets ready for her new life, she questions her aunt about the importance of a bicchu (toe ring). Her aunt says it’s meant to control (vaash) women so that they don’t fly. Her words are synonymous to the torture that young girls had to silently suffer at the hands of men who considered it their birthright to make women get up and sit as per their beck and call.
With the palanquin taking Bulbbul to her new place, Satya tells her a story about a chudail who gobbles up a princess. Little does Bulbbul know that her innocence, desires and identity will indeed be eaten up by a haveli that has nothing but hate to offer. As Bulbbul steps into her in-laws’ place, she discovers a friend in Satya, roughly her own age. Life is fun and games for Bulbbul, who dreams of authoring a book along with her brother-in-law. But her story is cut painfully short when Bulbbul’s sister-in-law Binodini adds fuel to the already suspicious mind of Indranil. Bulbbul’s husband decides that the only way to ‘cage’ her feelings is to snatch away the only source of trust, Satya.
Anvita ensures that the extreme violence and violation shown in a sequence that kills a part of Bulbbul hits us hard too. The pain inflicted on the girl by someone she considered her own changes her life for good and thereby begins a journey to undo the wrongs.
As she opens her eyes, Bulbbul discovers it’s not just her who is suffering - there’s a mention of broken bones, an incident of falling from the stairs, all hinting that the oppression has penetrated every vein of a village that takes pride in the calm surroundings.
Binodini, too, is a victim of a system that has denied her the basic right to choose and instead schooled her into accepting that privacy is a word that deserves no place in the dictionary of women. In a powerful monologue wherein Binodini rises from just being another bahu married into royalty who derives pleasure from gossips, she teaches Bulbbul the art of remaining silent. “Bade haveli ke bade raaz”, Binodini smirks, elaborating on how for centuries women have been clothed in expensive silks and jewellery, a veiled warning that they dare not spill any dirty secrets. Binodini and Bulbbul take us back to the poem by Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, wherein two sisters are left to fend for themselves in a world hounded by men ready to pounce on them.
By laying bare the perversion, twisted relationships and shallow feelings that makes for the very foundation of the grand structure, Bulbbul reimagines fairytales that most of us have been fed as children.
The film also escapes the ‘saviour complex’ by showing Satya as a man educated in London but as narrow-minded as the villagers reciting stories about the demon-woman.
‘Stree’ & The Daily Travails of Women
What can disrespect for women beget? Of course, disrespect. And that is what filmmaker Amar Kaushik tries and mostly succeeds in the horror-comedy Stree. The backdrop of this film is the sleepy Chanderi town. Only hell breaks loose during the four days of a festival, wherein men are advised by the women of the house to not venture outside, return home before sunset, keep doors and windows locked and absolutely stay away from strangers. The reason? Stree, a chudail, roams the streets of Chanderi and abducts men, only to leave behind their clothes. Sounds all too familiar, isn’t it?
Stree also opens our eyes to the way society has always treated prostitutes. Rajkummar Rao’s world turns upside down when he finds out that his mother was a tawaif. All this while, his friends and even his father shied away from ‘revealing’ this secret in the fear that he would face ostracisation. On the other hand, a rousing monologue by Vijay Raaz reinforces everything that’s wrong with the way we treat our women. “A woman is someone who can be trampled upon, someone who is only meant to serve men and bear children”, he says, and I rest my case.
The only hiccup in ‘Stree’ is that in a film about women, the lady at the center (Shraddha Kapoor) barely has anything to offer.
‘Pari’ - The Horrors of Refugees
‘Qayamat Andolan’, ‘Ifrit’, ‘heads of children’ - these stray phrases are hints that Pari is not a horror story that will only hinge on cliches and jump scares. An ‘accident’ of a Muslim woman leads Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) to a chained girl Ruksana, a victim of abuse. Her dwelling is in the middle of a forest, and her only companions being stray dogs that guard her house. From Ruksana’s actions, it’s clear that she hasn’t had the chance to interact with civilisation. Flashbacks from Ruksana’s past indicate that she was a survivor of a genocide wherein displaced children were hacked to death. A detailed sequence about the plight of Bangladeshi refugee women will make you squirm. A menacing Rajat Kapoor as Dr Qasim Ali is seen performing forced abortions of heavily-pregnant women, thus eliminating all traces of a future whose history has been written in blood.
Cut to the much-more liberal and advanced present day. Arnab and the woman he is supposed to marry, Piyali (Ritabhari Chakraborty), are sitting in the Maidan in Calcutta chatting about the book fair being shifted to a new place, in the process robbing many of their childhoods. As Piyali opens up about the disintegration of her previous relationship, we see glimpses of another mother losing her unborn child.
Director Prosit Roy asks - is this the medal of progress we keep flaunting?
The constant shift in our opinions as to whether Ruksana is evil or good somehow reveals the gaze with which we choose to perceive refugees. Pari is not without its flaws, but it leaves us with a number of questions to ponder over.
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