Content warning: spoilers, sexual violence
I want to begin by saying that I do not look towards Bollywood for feminist lessons or representations. It is a patriarchal, dynastic industry, and its most notable contribution to adding anything non-domestic to the woman's role is perhaps the 'item song' which mostly objectifies her body catering to the male-gaze. But over the past few years, as feminist politics have criticised sexist cinematic representations and women have been identified as a large, growing chunk of their paying audience,1 Bollywood has produced more films that have engaged the audience in conversations and cases for women (such as Thappad, Pink, Queen).2 And there are only a few films among these that were made by women (such as Lipstick Under My Burkha) which is no small feat in this male-dominated industry.3 So I want to begin by saying that it is commendable for Anushka Sharma, a prominent female actor, to veer into production with her production house, Clean Slate Films, and commit to their announced goal of backing new talent. Bulbbul is the latest addition to her roster of films featuring female protagonists and is the directorial debut of another woman, Anvita Dutt Guptan, who has been working in Bollywood for at least 15 years now. So in this industry, it does take solidarity among women for strong women's representation and work to make it through. Guptan claims that Bulbbul is a feminist fairytale.4
But this is a conclusion I find hard to reach. Bulbbul, very bluntly put, is a revenge fantasy. The titular female protagonist suffers many instances of gendered violence from a very young age: child marriage, physical abuse, rape. The rape, followed by a brief stillness that looks like she has met death altogether, is a fairytale-esque turning point for her. From a single zoom-out appearance of a Kali idol, it seems that the goddess herself has occupied her body to give her supernatural powers. The rest of the film unfolds to show that her new powers enable her to build an alternate reputation as a chudail (female demon) and kill several men from the village surrounding her mansion, all of whom have at least attempted to hurt other women and girls.
But what makes a narrative feminist? That it is told by a woman, or that is about a woman? A story built around a woman doesn't necessarily align with a larger politic concerning womanhood and experiences of gender and sexuality. It is only expected that in the hands of female filmmakers, there is more agency to humanise women with nuanced and subversive representations. Several women may simply want more entertainment featuring characters that look like them and stories that relate to their gendered social experiences. Women definitely deserve to express rage for all the misogyny they experience and cinema can be a means to that end. I'm sure it is quite refreshing for several women to see Bulbbul share a cigarette with a male friend in privacy, far away from the disapproval of patriarchy. At the same time, given that this industry has historically been patriarchal, it is also important to wonder if it relegates and restricts women to shouldering the burden of telling stories about and for women, which in itself is another patriarchal demand that disallows them from exploring other avenues in their work for diverse audiences.
But if feminism is a politic of liberation from patriarchy, and if Bulbbul intends to be a feminist film, how does it fare as a story? I'm afraid, not well at all.
Bulbbul resorts to a life of empowerment that is facilitated by the upper-caste, colonial, affluent zamindari life she was married into, all of which are agents of patriarchal oppression but conveniently unacknowledged in the film. Her new-found 'empowerment' does not challenge her brother-in-law's authority over her nor does it change the larger scheme of things for her village, where she has been the sole, unchallenged authority since her husband's departure. Every time she kills a man, she leaves no hint for villagers to know what wrongdoing he has been punished for, or that he has been punished at all. She resorts to silent vigilante-esque punishments that simply cancel men from the larger equation of violence, but does nothing to reform the equation. She doesn't invite anyone to bring about a shift in people's collective consciousnesses. It makes no case for any of the patriarchal violence that other characters suffer from, which in turn push them to become enablers themselves. Her sister-in-law Binodini, who is also forced into a marriage, tasked with care-giving, and has little agency or power, is punished by widowhood, another form of patriarchal violence. And yes, this may suffice as revenge for Bulbbul – to punish Binodini for not saving her – but is this a feminist consciousness that saves people from patriarchal violence? No.
But what I find the most unacceptable is the film's use of gratuitous violence to make a case for feminism. Bulbbul had to endure every imaginable horror before her consciousness could shift. This is another case of how Bollywood repackages, romanticises, and sells violence against women to justify a change of things; that women must be pushed to the very edge, and that the audience must endure with them to finally have a change of heart and demand liberation. It depicts a minute-and-a-half-long rape on Bulbbul's injured, disabled body, where she screams for help until she is left lifeless. What's worse is that the film chooses a mentally disabled man as the perpetrator, which in itself is deeply offensive and an irreparably demonising representation of people with mental illnesses, many of whom are women globally.
If a film claims to be feminist, then I demand storytelling that does not reduce women to sufferers of grotesque violence, but depicts them as human beings who demand a collective politic of self-determination. Bollywood has used rape countless times as a trope for gratification and quick storytelling over the years. I demand better from a fairytale that claims to be "feminist" because it is allowed to make implausible events occur and offer endings that are impossibly liberating from patriarchy. While feminism must make room for every personal violence on the gendered body, this film only reduces feminist visions to myopic fantasies of revenge that incriminates all other identities and pushes a self-righteous protagonist to "kill them all".
Mind you, this is not a review of the film. Because then, there would be much to say about how this Hindi-language film uses colonial Bengal only as an aesthetic; Hindi-fies an entire historical backdrop and a stellar Bengali cast; and borrows a goddess to give more power to its upper-caste protagonist without addressing the goddess' casteist complexity in the region's history. This article only calls Bollywood out for selling anything remotely relevant to a female protagonist as feminist ideology. After all, Black feminist writer and thinker bell hooks made it clear two decades ago that a feminist television network "is not the same as a network for women".5
maliha mohsin is a writer, researcher, and community organiser, with a focus on the intersections of art and queer-feminist politics.
- 1. Jha, Lata. "53% of people visiting movie theatres today are women: report." Live Mint, July 14, 2017.
- 2. Bhattacharya, Ananya. "After analysing 4,000 films, researchers confirm that Bollywood movies are still crazy sexist." Quartz India, October 23, 2017.
- 3. Sharma, Priyanka. "Really less percentage of female directors is a matter of shame: Alankrita Srivastava." The Indian Express, October 8, 2017.
- 4. Sahani, Alaka. "Anvita Dutt on why Bulbbul is a feminist 'fairy tale'." The Indian Express, June 28, 2020.
- 5. hooks, bell. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto Press, 2000.