11/January/2021

Bulbbul was feminist until I explained it to someone

by: Jasleen

CW: talks about gendered violence, physical and sexual abuse in the South Asian fictional horror film Bulbbul.

Illustration courtesy of Jasleen
(Shoutout to Adrija. This article started as a conversation over Adrija’s love for Bengali culture
& my obsession with Horror, in our insta DMs)


Do you ever order something thinking this is the food dish of your dreams and begin eating it and at first there’s an aftertaste of something bitter...maybe it’s a touch burnt—the flames just licked it a bit. Then there’s a very subtle stank, and then your mouth feels rancid but it’s just at the edges—not really tho...It’s until the acid reflux hits, that you fully realise the extent of just how your food items of dreams is actually nightmares.
That in long detailed allegorical explanation of how Bulbbul felt.

Bulbbul released on Netflix. It was marketed as an “anti-fairytale” and we all know how mad we are at Disney Disney...they tricked me tricked me...khair(Anyways)…
Bulbbul got rave reviews and massive coverage. It was the newest offering at the altar of the Fresh Wave of Horror in South Asia that Anushka Sharma has backed in the last couple of years, stronk “feminist” characters, aesthetically on point and enough nice dudes for everyone. Wallah kitna sundar hota hai sab (Urdu for— I swear to god, how beautiful everything is!). This particular film was very Tagore-meets-local-gothic-mansion and inevitably we all local goths gushed & fawned over it to no end—OMG desi Sabrina vibes, desi gothic heroine. And Bulbbul on your first date would be the quintessential lush long dark haired, beautifully dressed, edgy smoking, taking-no-shit from the mEnS heroine. Sure I have a mild to excessive crush on Bulbbul. Sure I gushed about her to all my friends. Sure things went downhill when my film studies critic analysis came back to me.

Because—well here’s the thing consuming a beautiful film (and character) versus critically examining said film (and character) are lengths apart. So while we discussed the sheer, aesthetic Tagore-ness of the film(verryy Tagore...a bit too much...hey is this straight up RIPPED from Tagore...hey I’m not sure anymore :0)—the underlying dissonance of the film to what it was “meant” to portray, was becoming apparent.
And fair warning spoilers ahead.
The character arc of Bulbbul, the protagonist, is a mythology backed transformation from a submissive wife who was married off as a child, to a reasonably domineering, strong woman. But A Transformation, that happens as a result of brutal violence acted upon her by a man, her man-husband-dude-bro.  She transforms, post this into a vengeful, powerful, implied-goddess but only after perishing via domestic violence and s*x*al molestation. And don’t get me wrong this is the violent truth the femmes of today live with. There is no lie in what is portrayed in the film. And yet how feminist is a fictional character whose origin lies solely in patriarchal violence? Can femme characters not be strong and assertive outside violence? Can womxn not take the reins unless a man deigns upon them, his violence? Why are we stanning patriarchal violence = power = feminist?
Why must we put a womxn through disfigurement by patriarchy, for her to come into her power?
And does she even come into power? At what point does feminist dialogue in a visual fictional narrative turn from realist representation to trauma porn? Where are we drawing the line? The storyline heavily implies that Bulbbul dies at the hands of violence and is “possessed” (for the lack of a better word), by a goddess figure. And there lies another question— what does it mean for a woman’s inherent agency if a “other” entity, from outside of her, must literally enter her, to grant her agency? Are strong women archetypes only supernaturally assisted or straight up supernatural characters? How rooted in strength is feminist strength if it is violently thrust upon femmes or derived from an unnatural source?
The equation changes greatly if you substitute supernatural with its synonym “unnatural”. Does this character arc then imply that strong feminist archetypes are unnatural?

“Can femme characters not be strong and assertive outside violence? Can womxn not take the reins unless a man deigns upon them, his violence? Why are we stanning patriarchal violence = power = feminist? Why must we put a womxn through disfigurement by patriarchy, for her to come into her power?”


Speaking of unnatural, the film changes its color palette drastically into a deep blood red, coinciding with Bulbbul’s transformation. It’s actually a pretty baller shot and the film Officially turns supernatural at that point, like you know. A point which would, under any critical examination, signify that strong women cannot even exist in a “normal” world. The whole world has to change to accommodate a strong, powerful, assertive, active woman. The literal sky has to change color for such a woman to exist within its bounds. It’s supernatural. It’s unnatural. It’s not natural. A strong, assertive woman is an anomaly. The film really said with its whole chest that womxn asserting their personhood is neither preferred nor rewarded.
The whole film is interspersed with similar signifiers, constantly reinforcing how unnatural it is for womxn to be powerful, whatever power means in the films context. The whole film is beautiful, but in a way that bogs are beautiful— beneath it all it stinks. In all the history of horror as a genre, real life seeps into narratives willingly or unwillingly. And I think Bulbbul tried to willingly present as a Feminist icon but the rEaL world seeped in. It truly shows how flattened our understanding of feminism is in liberal mainstream narratives from South Asia specifically, and how we keep pushing out the nuances from what constitutes as true self-actualisation and coming into power. These aren’t the only questions tho, once you start questioning the feminist narrative.
Why is the vindictive female second-lead dark skinned and her character-arc “ends up as a widow at the mercy of the pretty fair heroine”? Why is the mentally disordered brother the perpetrator of the gendered crime? What IS our understanding of mentally affected individuals? Because a lot of horror tropes stem from our real-life acknowledgement of certain “threats” as “horrific”, if you get my drift…
And that’s a sad realisation to have. And that’s not the only realisations to have from this here one piece of “widely appreciated” media.
But perhaps the saddest realisation I carried away from Bulbbul was this—not even a goddess gets her due from men of the world. Even a goddess burns at the hands of male ego and patriarchal violence.
Oh and also nice guys don’t do anything besides stand and watch the world burn (I’m lookin at MOST of your characters Parambrata Chakraborty)
Anyways, Do I love it? Heck yea.
Is it feminist? Maybe if you really narrow one eye… and wait till you remember the casteist origins of the chudail archetype in South Asian folklore as you type…OH MY G-

“The whole world has to change to accommodate a strong, powerful, assertive, active woman. The literal sky has to change color for such a woman to exist within its bounds. It’s supernatural. It’s unnatural. It’s not natural. A strong, assertive woman is an anomaly”


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About the writer
I’m Jasleen and I’m a visual semiotics researcher, working with interdisciplinary horror and spatial politics research, some of which is an extension of my masters dissertation. I work with various visual mediums, but film and interactive visuals are my preferred ones. I’m a queer femme and I’m currently producing anti-caste, religious minority queer positive work on my socials and in my discourse. I prefer working in South Asian vernacular linguistic mediums jaise ki Urdu, Punjabi, Dakhani and occasionally under some duress, Hindi. I also find it very imperative that I inform you that I have a wonderful smol dog, whom I love to death and like fake hating on, on socmed.









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