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 about women’s interests and aspirations. So how does it feel when a film which honestly aims to unpack the myths of class and faith around sexual violence resorts to the same binary to hail its woman protagonist?
The answer, ironically lies in Bulbbul’s screenplay itself. Worried about a slew of gory murders in the village, Satya, Bulbul’s young, temperamental brother-in-law, comments that it must be the work of a beast or a man.
“What, can’t she be a woman?” Bulbul smirks.
Indeed, why not?
In Ram Madhvani’s Hotstar series Aarya, a starkly different film rooted in the gritty world of the violent drug mafia, Sushmita Sen’s character is shown to be constantly straining against deification. Both Bulbbul and Aarya’s lives are fretful, nervous responses to the violence of men.
Both women — Bulbbul played by Tripti Dimri and Aarya played by Sushmita Sen — respond to the violence inflicted on themselves and on their kin by assuming a role traditionally accorded to men in Hindi films, that of a protector.
Bulbbul, beaten up by her husband, abandoned by her friend and the love of her life Satya (her brother-in-law), and raped by another brother-in-law, is kind of reborn like phoenix, as a ‘chudail’ who avenges tortured women by killing the perpetrators.
The deification of Bulbbul is fervent, melodramatic and almost desperate. Throughout the film, I desperately hoped writer and director Anvita Dutt would let her protagonist Bulbbul catch her breath and process her pain, before or while responding to it by avenging other women.
Dutt dwells elaborately on the physicality of violence — as Bulbbul screams while her husband thrashes her with an iron rod, the scene culminates with a growing patch of blood on Rahul Bose’s kurta. The camera hovers hungrily around the gore, from the first sprinkle of blood on the mirror as Bose beats her to the collage of gleaming, red droplets that collect on his clothes.
After Bulbbul is raped, the camera doggedly follows the piece of cloth Binodini — Bulbbul’s sister-in-law — uses to wipe her legs, rinsing it in a white ceramic water bath once, and then again. It lingers around Bulbul’s legs strung up, as blood seeps into the white bandages. It freezes momentarily on a thick stream of blood crawling down Bulbbul’s inner thigh. It’s effective.
My 62-year-old mother who was watching Bulbbul with me gasped twice and then made a sizzling ‘sssshhhh’ sound — sucking air in while gritting her teeth — as she usually does while tending to our wounds. Here’s the thing, she’d have the same reaction if Bulbbul, say, sliced her finger with a knife. Our response to Bulbbul stems from our response to physical trauma.