Dayamayee — a frail, quivering and feverish Sharmila Tagore— is hunched over a smattering of puja paraphernalia in the courtyard of an old Bengal mansion, with a thick, limp tuberose garland slung around her neck. A horde of women throng the staircase and pray to her with folded hands but Dayamayee, her eyes blank, shoulders drooping and mouth frozen in a stifled gasp, doesn’t blink or move. A minstrel sitting on the staircase gleefully sings, “Ebar tomai chinechi ma (I have finally recognised you, mother.)”.
As the song claiming that men have finally discovered the real ‘mother’ (referring to Dayamayee) progresses, ironically, the woman at the centre of it is steadily, painfully and almost violently losing her own identity to an unreal one the world insists on bestowing upon her. As a woman with none of Dayamayee’s compulsions, separated by fiction and a few decades, I treat Satyajit Ray’s stunning Devi (1960) as a sort of holy text on the horror of drowning in labels the world gives every average woman - slut, goddess, bitch, mother, chudail, devi. Watching Devi is like scraping a wound so that it stays raw and keeps reminding you of what caused it.
Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul — which narrates how domestic and sexual violence are used as weapons against a woman’s personhood — is an earnest attempt to occupy a similar space in a woman viewer’s consciousness.
So when a man in Netflix’s Bulbbul benevolently screams, “Woh chudail nahin hai, devi hai devi”, I disappointedly watch the movie plunge into the good woman versus evil woman trap that it had probably set out to challenge in the first place. Why does Bulbbul have to be deified from the point of view of a man who worships her? Why does the latter have to correct another man critical of her that she is actually worthy of devotion?
Violence against women in India is often rooted in and justified by this ‘devi-chudail’ binary, both of which are built on misbegotten assumptions...