"If you want to marry into royalty, you must pay a royal price.” These chilling words – spoken by an older sister-in-law to the young lead character in Bulbbul just after she is unspeakably brutalised – define the horror of Indian patriarchal society more than its pet storytelling motif of the ‘chudail’ (witch) ever could. In the new horror drama Bulbbul on Netflix, director Anvita Dutt takes on this folklore of the female demon but gives a feminist twist.
After a long career as dialogue writer, screenplay writer, storywriter and lyricist in peppy mainstream Bollywood romances, Anvita’s directorial debut goes headlong into dark subjects – child marriage, rape, domestic violence and sex slavery.
“As a commissioned writer, you write to the director’s brief and try to deliver to their vision. But when I decided to direct my own film, I worked on a genre of my own choice – on the kind of story that I wanted to tell – basically a fantastical tale talking about real pain,” she explains.
Starring Tripti Dimri, Rahul Bose and Paoli Dam, Anvita says she had always planned the film for an OTT release. Having a producer and platform that allowed complete freedom to just do justice to the film was an advantage, she admits.
“Netflix freed me in the sense that they completely supported my vision,” says Anvita, who is inspired by filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa and Bong Joon-ho, and lists Abhimaan, Minority Report and Pulp Fiction among her favourite films.
Brought up in various parts of India as an Indian Air Force officer’s daughter, the 48-year-old is a voracious reader. “Books don’t just hold the engaging, seductive power of stories. They teach you how stories work. And they teach you to have an imagination,” she says, adding that she admires authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Agatha Christie and Stephen King, among many others.
One of most fascinating details about her film is its backdrop of 19th century Bengal. “I felt that Bengal of that period had a certain mythical quality and had an aesthetic appeal that would add to the fable-like quality of the film,” explains Anvita, adding, “All of India is rich in myths and folklore. There is, in fact, a treasure trove of material just waiting for someone like me to play with. This time I chose Bengal.”
The film’s protagonist, played by Tripti Dimri, looks stunningly beautiful in the film, and yet this beauty is definitely one seen through ‘the female gaze’, not hyper-sexualised but rather endowed with innate power.
“She is a very beautiful girl in any case – not just physically but also as a human being,” affirms Anvita. “And it is her innate authenticity coupled with her performance and her living and breathing and becoming Bulbbul that takes her beauty to the sublime. She completely surrendered to the character. And this is true for all great actors. They own up the role.”
As far as the female gaze goes, she adds, “Look at what Bimal Roy did in Bandini.”
Though Anvita says she wanted to give the derogatory word ‘chudail’ a new meaning through the film, she explains why she chose its traditional identifiers from Indian folklore – the feet turned backwards, loose open hair, a hint of promiscuity: “You have to show people what is familiar before you can change its meaning. There is an existing idea. You have to first make people remember that idea, that myth, before subverting it.”
There’s also the disturbing aspect of violence in the film, which has been criticised by some, but which serves the purpose in creating a sense of horror rather than voyeurism. It also justifies the subtle anti-men tenor of the plot and the protagonist’s anger, though Anvita hopes men and women will be equally moved by it.
“The idea was to bring to light the everyday horror that unfolds even today. And I think if you are sensitive to that and are emotionally moved by it, your gender doesn’t matter,” she says.
The idea of presenting women characters in shades of grey is something that has been catching on in the film industry and that is how Anvita has perceived her two women leads in the film as well – Binodini and Bulbbul are both heroines and anti-heroines in their own way.
“This is a democracy. All that I can do is be true to myself – and hopefully that will bring enough dissonance,” says Anvita, who says she was “surprised how audiences picked up every nuance and responded to it emotionally and viscerally. It has sparked conversations and it has moved them to poetry or art. I am so grateful for that.”First published in eShe magazine