As a cloudy Wednesday afternoon starts to close in on us, director and scriptwriter Anvita Dutt appears in all her resplendence in a lovely Ikat saree and silver jewellery on the other side of our Zoom video call. Seated on the side of her bed, she lights up her cigarette and smiles. In her subtle grandeur, she looks like a 19th-century Thakuraain, much after the heart of the protagonist of her recent Netflix release Bulbbul. A poster of Bimal Roy’s Bandini (1963) hangs behind her and contentedly completes the picture.
The three of us, Anvita, Varsha (Patra), and I talk about the history of Bengal, folklores and cautionary tales of the ole, how the Romanian vampire is actually Indian in origin, the female gaze, and the film. We almost recede into our own antarmahal (the inner sanctum of a 19th-century house where women lived) as we chat about how as women, we perceive and write about women’s pain differently because we have experienced it at all in our being.
Anvita Dutt’s Female Gaze and Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze
At one point, when we unthinkingly expressed that male directors usually design their films and look at their heroines through this male gaze to serve a largely male-dominated audience, Anvita Dutt, whose recent release Bulbbul, has churned conversations galore, said she was amused at our use of the word ‘male’ while referring to the male directors. For, aren’t all directors male and aren’t directors who are not, ‘female’ directors? Aren’t men known by their craft and women by their gender?
Dutt describes Bulbbul, that released on Netflix on June 24, as ‘a fairy tale in the old sense of the word’, replete with its churail (witch), haunted trees, and a red-colour moon that bathes the world in a red shadow whenever the witch comes into action. At its heart, however, Bulbbul is a ‘horror story’ in terms of it being a critique of the horrors inflicted upon women by the patriarchal society.
Set in 19th century Bengal, little Bulbbul is married off to a much older zamindar. As Bulbbul befriends and eventually, falls in love with her younger brother-in-law, her contemporary who doubles up as her childhood playmate, the story gradually peels through the vicious layers of atrocity hidden behind the vinyl-like shiny exterior of the thakurbadi (zamindar’s manor).
Bulbbul has been praised widely for its grandiose scenes and luscious cinematography. Some have duly applauded it for punching a hole in the heart of patriarchy with a ‘feminist witch’ ( as we will see later). However, over and above, or maybe, along with these discussions, what we need to talk about is Anvita Dutt’s female gaze towards Bulbbul. It’s time we acknowledge that a film does not just become ‘feminist’ by having women brandish guns and crush their rapists’ testicles (or well, it could be, but there’s certainly more to it). A film becomes feminist when the story-teller is able to use the camera to tell us the real story of the people in the film — without fetishising and without lying.
What is the female gaze, then? Tefler tries to explain, “It’s emotional and intimate. It sees people as people. It seeks to empathise rather than to objectify. (Or not.) It’s respectful, it’s technical, it hasn’t had a chance to develop, it tells the truth, it involves physical work, it’s feminine and unashamed, it’s part of an old-fashioned gender binary, it should be studied and developed, it should be destroyed, it will save us, it will hold us back.”
For Dutt, to whom feminism is like breathing, the story, with which she has been for almost nine years now, breathes the same breath as she does. She says that we bring these discussions forward because there is a need for these discussions in the context of overt violence and otherism. While it might be surprising to have to talk about the cinematic gaze in a binary, its importance is only realised when we juxtapose the violent but strangely voyeuristic ways in which rape is usually depicted on-screen to the way Bulbbul captures the atrocities meted out to women.
About a recent conversation with a female journalist who had expressed her anguish at the rape scene being so ‘graphic’, Dutt narrates, “She exclaimed that it was so disturbing that she kept finding herself looking away.
I said, ‘Tell me what was graphic? ... What did I show?’
Then she thought about it. Upon going back, she fell silent for a moment, and then she said, ‘... You ... actually ... didn’t show anything, you showed me her eyes, her injured legs falling down, her helplessness and her pain.’
She was also taken aback. I have not shown anything, I have just made you feel very close to her so that you can feel her pain, and that’s what makes you uncomfortable. Those acts are mental and emotional, not physical acts.”
If you contrast this with the depiction of rape in usual Bollywood films with the camera’s wide-angle trying to peek into the heroine’s skirt as the rapist tears off the sleeve of her tiny, too-tight blouse, you would not need to read further to know about the importance of the female gaze.
Dutt continues, “Through the experience of being a woman, when I look at an act of violation, even emotional abuse, (and there are many in the film when Bulbbul is being cornered and reduced), it is a very internalised kind of pain that I feel. That is why I have stayed with Bulbbul at those points and not with the perpetrator because this is not about him. The perpetrators are also victims of their upbringing and conditioning and believe themselves to be entitled to behave the way they do. But it is not about them, it is about the one who goes through it. It is not about sensationalism. No voyeuristic pleasure is derived out of it because it is not a physical act. It is an emotional act, a mental act. It’s like bullying. It’s not about the fact that I might be bigger than you, it’s about the fact that I feel bigger when I make you feel small.”
As many might have noticed, it’s undeniable that Dutt’s story has marked references to the two icons of Bengali culture — Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Whether it be references to Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (1901) or Ray’s Charulata (1964) and his iconic Kashphool (Catkins/Saccharum spontaneum) from Pather Panchali (1955), Dutt’s Bengal is also Tagore’s and Ray’s Bengal.
Dutt tells HuffPost, “I have always been drawn to Tagore. I’ve felt devastated after reading his work, especially Noshtonir, which, over the years, has subliminally become a part of me. When you hold a butterfly and let it go, its texture still lingers on your fingers. That’s how I feel about the work of Tagore. He understood the female gaze.”
Inside The Thakurbadi
Through Bulbbul, Dutt takes us to 1881, exactly a decade before the Age of Consent Act, which raised the marriageable age of girls from 10 to 12, was passed by the colonial government in the face of gruesome opposition from revival nationalists in Bengal, and the nationalist icon, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. 1881 was also 25 years after the Widow Remarriage Act had been passed. Before the passage of the Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act of 1856, Hindu tradition required a woman to live as a virtual outcast after her husband’s death. Widows were expected to shave their heads, discard their jewellery, live in seclusion, and undergo regular acts of penance. Yet, things had not changed to a great extent, and Dutt shows it accurately through Binodini.
It’s not difficult to garner that each of these laws (despite legal amendments) were essentially misogynistic in nature. Most of the cases of brutality against women went unreported and were usually hushed until something as big as the Empress v. Hari Mohan Maiti case happened, in which 10-year-old Phulomani Dasi was raped and killed by her 30-year-old husband who was trying to ‘consummate their marriage.’
Bulbbul takes these ‘horrors’: child-marriage, inhumane customs of widowhood, wife-beating, child-molestation and rape, and polygamy (which was legal in India for Hindu men until 1956!), and frames an almost revolutionary and fantastical tale of justice in revenge, in a very old-style fairytale style — old and fairytale-like in the narrative but essentially, modern and extremely feminist in its approach.
She says, “I found it really interesting to think about Raja Rammohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, the banning of child marriage, and everything around the narrative of Hindu Reformation in Bengal. Most of these men belonged to the thakurbadi. Most of them had studied in England and even though they were professing about change, within the walls of the thakurbadi, change was not arriving. Women were still coming in young. The cut-off for a thakur to marry a girl was 9. Anything above nine was considered old. Then they got married to men of the lower class. 5-9 was the age. While in most communities, there used to be gauna, in thakurbadis, they would bring in these girls at that very age so that they would live there and learn the mannerisms and the culture inside the threshold. The playmates for them used to be the younger siblings, which is where the inspiration for Satya came in.”
Satya, another victim of his conditioning, is supposed to be Bulbbul’s friend, her protector, but even he betrays her, thus proving that she never needed a protector at all. Another interesting man, however, is Dr Sudip, who is portrayed as the perfect feminist ally. He sees her in her grief and in her power and he is awestruck.
Dutt explains, “Historically, what I tried to do was take in the real Renaissance man. He slips in through the cracks within this world. Otherwise, you would not find a man like that within the antarmahal. A doctor, however, can go into the inner sanctum. For me, it’s not like I am tarring everyone with the same brush. There are different kinds of mindsets, different levels of conditioning, different ways to react to the feminine energy because I know men like that. I wanted Sudip to stand for that man. When he says, “Tum mere pohoch ke bahar ho,” (You are out of my reach), some people read it from a caste angle, but it is about him being awestruck by her.”
Dutt’s women, in their own oscillation between finding power and never finding any, tell the ugly truth of women who are always taught to compromise and bend, because if they don’t, the house breaks down. In this way, while Bulbbul’s journey is that of a little vulnerable girl who finds power after her near-vanquishment, Binodini compromises. She teaches Bulbbul what she has been taught. In her sense of pettiness towards Bulbbul, she exposes the extant cracks in the patriarchal upbringing of women.
Churail: The Homegrown Feminist Of The Ole
Anvita Dutt excitedly says, “I trip on this stuff,” when she talks about how much she loves old tales and folklores. She informs us that she calls Bulbbul a tale of the ole because, being cautionary tales, they were really dark. She talks about how Snow White was actually a vampire, and how in its original version, Sleeping Beauty was impregnated (raped) in sleep and was woken only to the pain of her child tugging at her breasts for milk. She claims how all of these creatures (much like Bulbbul herself) “were human before they became demonic. They became so after an act of violence was committed upon them. These are the oldest tales. On the face of it, they are very simplistic, but they carry grave meanings. I am collectively telling these cautionary tales to the children in us.”
Dutt’s witch, otherwise an allusion to the popular lore, a seductress with inverted feet, vacillates between a life-taking sorceress and a life-saving goddess empowered by Goddess Durga herself (or Kali, as she is also addressed by one of the girls she saves) — a narrative symbolised amply by jubilant ululation and the abundant Kashphool, that is usually associated with the arrival of the Goddess. Dutt’s witch, herself a victim of abominable violence, is the guardian of women against men who hurt them.
As Thakuraain, she berates men who beat their wives and claim that they “fell from the stairs” (much like her husband had after having broken her legs) and as the churail, sucks their blood out and kills them. If one reads into the South Asian folklore, they might discover the presence of witches as an ancient homegrown strain of feminism against the caustic hatred the society has had against women. The tale of patriarchy is truly as old as time, and it’s empowering to think that at different points, feminism has appeared and fought back in different ways. One might also read the urgent need to subdue these ‘witches’, as the modern narrative also does. This is also where Bulbbul picks up as a ‘horror film’ about the horrors that women are subjected to by men, and how they are supposed to be silent about it all — silence executed at the hands of women who have themselves been victims, just like Binodini who asks Bulbbul to keep quiet about the ordeal and let the thakurbadi’s secrets stay inside the thakurbadi.
Stepping Out Of The Thakurbadi
Dutt exclaims, “What I find interesting is that nothing much has changed. Our thakurbadis have become really big. Our doors have become further away. You can walk a little, we think we are free. There is light and there’s the sun, but in very insidious ways, the lines are still there, and you don’t even realise.”
Critics have pointed out that Bulbbul reduces feminism to a tale of vengeance without deciphering the narrative to seek a systemic solution. True to its form, as an ‘old-world cautionary tale’, Bulbbul, however, does exactly what it comes to do — pummel the putrid history of patriarchy in fictionally horrid ways. Contrary to the suggestion that it should have sat and had a mature conversation with patriarchy and violence over a cup of tea, Bulbbul presents a rare voice of subversion and gives us hope in the form of a cautionary tale that might be told by grandparents to their sons to warn them against gender violence.
In its empathetic and nuanced method of capturing the pain and the power of the subjects it turns its female gaze towards, Bulbbul is truly an iconic feminist film. It makes one believe that it is possible, after all, to step out of the thakurbadi.
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