Bulbbul, directed by Anvita Dutt, has been trending on Netflix’s ‘Top 10 in India’ list for the past couple of weeks. The film is being hailed as a ‘fiercely feminist tale‘ tackling the ‘putrid core of patriarchy‘ and exposing the ‘pervasiveness of male violence‘. But the film is not a feminist revision of old myths; it instead continues in the long tradition of rape-revenge dramas where a violated woman hunts down or haunts her abusers.
Set in the late-1800s in the Bengal presidency, the story revolves around a wealthy zamindar family, into which Bulbbul enters as a child bride. Bulbbul named after the songbird wants to live freely and fly away, but the society and patriarchy have caged her in a big mansion and married to a much older man Indranil, who is the head (‘Thakur’) of the family. Young Bulbbul is caged with the luxuries, jewels, and toerings meant to “tame” her. Other members of the family also act as agents of patriarchy. Bulbbul´s only refuge is Satya, her brother in law, who is also close to Bulbbul´s age. Her life is shattered when the family schemes to move him away from her.
Apart from the problematic portrayal of revenge as justice, this category of films, by celebrating the idea of a vigilante heroine or ‘goddess’, obscure the need for structural changes within a patriarchal society. What is missing is an analysis of patriarchal institutions like marriage which, for example, is based on notions of private property and inheritance. Women’s subjugation to abusive husbands is a consequence of their economic dependence, which is linked to the gendered expectation on women to stay at home and raise children. When we strip away the elements of inherited property (ensured through monogamy) and the gendered division of labour in social reproduction, what is really left of ‘marriage’ as we know it?
The film makes perfunctory references to many patriarchal practices such as; child marriage, men taking on multiple wives, enforced widowhood, familial rape, and domestic abuse, but offers no meaningful insights about any of them. There is overt symbolization of toe-rings as a form of controlling women’s sexuality.
It seems as though the film wants us to believe that, by simply ticking all these boxes, it is somehow feminist. However, there is nothing fresh or feminist about this tale of a woman wronged, who then sets out to avenge other women suffering similar abuse. This is also reflective of the larger problem with the trend of so-called feminist movies, where if the story is centered around women it is somehow feminist, even though it has all the usual tropes.
It is easier for films like Bulbbul to simply get rid of abusive men rather than challenging the patriarchal structures which perpetuate such abuse. The murders of the male abusers in the village by Bulbbul remain very much within the framework of feudal paternalism; it is as traditional as the head of the local zamindar family ‘taking care’ of the village and meting out justice as they see fit. The only difference is that the head of this feudal family is a woman, not a man. But in no way does she act to change the structures of feudalism and patriarchy which entrap and exploit her. As the ‘Thakurain’ of the household, she is as controlling as a male ‘Thakur’ would be.
The relationship between the two female characters, Bulbbul and Binodini, is also typically patriarchal. Binodini is the jealous and scheming sister-in-law who tries to control Bulbbul’s interactions with Satya and who is indirectly responsible for Bulbbul´s fate. Almost every conversation between the two women is vicious and bitter. Although Binodini is also is a victim of patriarchy (in being forced into marriage with Mahendra), she reinforces the patriarchal household structure by continuing the cycle of control and thus enabling the men in the household.
More importantly, by making the incident of rape central to the transformation of Bulbbul’s character, the movie reinforces the patriarchal notion of a rape victim being ‘damaged’ forever and her identity being defined by her experience of violation. Some viewers have seen this as perpetuating “the (problematic) trope that in order to blossom, a woman must first be (violently) broken”. Why is it that “in Bollywood films, a rape survivor is either an angry embittered witch or an innocent victim who later takes her life…Is it not possible for once to have a climax where the survivor moves forward and forges a new storyline for herself?”
Even the most ‘progressive’ character in the film, Dr. Sudip, disappoints us when he protects Bulbbul stating that “she is not a demon (chudail), she is a goddess (devi)”. Feminists have long fought against both; the idealization of women as goddesses and their denigration as demons, as neither positions respect women for simply being human. Instead of an escape into the supernatural realm, what we need is a close examination of the patriarchal structures of family and marriage which allow the perpetuation of domestic abuse and violence.