A Feminist Spin To The Horror Genre : The Examples of Stree and Bulbbul

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(This article has been contributed by Haseeba Sayyed and Preeksha Malhotra of Institute of Home Economics).

Tagging ‘STREE’ as a ‘horror’ film is slightly confusing. You recommend it to people and you get the most obvious response ‘I don’t want to get scared’. There’s no way to tell them (especially women) that the film is meaningful and not scary (per se).

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The creative style of ‘STREE’ was repeated by ‘BULBBUL’. The name of the film itself eludes its claim of belonging to the ‘horror’ genre. Although, it’s cinematography does justice by scaring you decently (if not enough to make your blood curdle).

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These films, however, are not what you would expect out of the horror genre. Dingy houses, spider webs, and a dash of suspense is the regular recipe for horror. Right from the times of the world war, when the German film movement, German expressionism, made its debut with visually displeasing figures, exaggeration and portrayal of fears. It is believed to have greatly influenced the horror genre of modern times.

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The genre has not been seen in the light of positive vengeance yet through the lens of justice to societal atrocities, making it closer to home. Stree and Bulbbul are an attempt to change exactly that.

From Pari to Ghoul to Phobia, many films from the Hindi cinema of the current times have been credited with rewriting the horror genre. The one element that they all have in common is ‘Making the known unknown’. They deploy horror by making us scared of things that we see happening around us.

Bulbbul and Stree however, took a bigger leap of faith and used horror to bring forth the actual scares of the life of a woman. In doing so, however, they did not forget the genre they represent. Stree is full of satire as it takes jabs at the ironies of life. The theme of the film in honesty is very simple, but its message was powerful enough to break the misogynistic society that we live in.

EMERGENCE OF A HYBRID GENRE

The world has never been fair to women. Putting them in the darkest of lights, every time the apparent ‘little creature’ attempts to go beyond social norms. The most common way found to title any woman they found doing something ‘inappropriate’ was to crown her with the title of ‘chudail’.

There have been instances in the past and even in the present, of women who came out and challenged the authority of women being accused of witchcraft. The most global example being the 2014 USA presidential candidate Hillary Clinton being tagged with the term ‘witch’.

In Anvitta Dutt’s words, “when you run down the corridor, then you are a ‘chudail’. When your braids have opened up, you are a ‘chudail’. When you speak loudly, you are a ‘chudail’. So whenever a person who is not understood and who does not fit into any box, becomes a chudail.”

The haggish outsides of these witches and ‘chudail’ are meant to match their evil insides and testify to their unnaturalness since women are supposed to be as neat, attractive and young as possible.

Men in sarees telling their wives to come home early because they feel scared of ‘STREE’, to many other metaphors to the real life of a woman, showcased the irony of the times that we live in through the plot of the film Stree.

Stree is not your regular horror story. Its poster speaks for its cause, not only the title but another statement accompanying it tells you about the cause it stands for, feminism. At the top of the poster, a tagline is written centrally aligned which reads, Mard Ko Dard Hoga. There is a dialogue in the movie where Pankaj Tripathi says, ‘Wo stree hai.. Purush nahi jo aise hi utha le jayegi… wo pehle permission leti hai’ which clearly shows the difference between a man and a woman when it comes to consent. Throughout the movie, there has been a smooth attempt to comment on various societal norms and issues faced by people ranging from patriarchy to aadhar.

We have seen how Stree as a movie came out and brought to light another hybrid genre of its own in the Hindi cinema. Bulbbul might not be the exact same but has done a job somewhat similar to that of Stree while telling a fairy tale with teeth, which are sharp enough to bite free from the suffocating societal norms women are forced to live or rather exist with.

In a similar but in a more chilling way, Bulbbul brings forth atrocities towards women and the ‘chup rehna’ or keeping quiet culture that is promoted for them to follow. The films use the term ‘Chudail’, which has been in use to demean women and target them for a long time in a somewhat empowering light.

TITLES BESTOWED ON WOMEN

A seductress leading the virtuous man to the path of infidelity, a temptress making men fall on their knees, a defiled woman demolishing the prestige of the family; these titles come in handy whenever a woman tries to devastate the society and its patriarchal setups, to celebrate her ‘glory’.

These titles have always been catered to women and one would never find such accusations put on men. Similarly, it might not come to you as a shock that ‘innocence, purity, modesty, chastity’ are all the accepted titles sanctioned to women.

The same is the fate of Bulbbul, at least in the eyes of Satya. Satya saw Bulbbul as an innocent and delicate woman, a ‘thakuraain’ who needs a ‘thakur’ to rule by her side.

The title of the film here serves as an attempt to take the negative light away from the character of a ‘Chudail’ and give her the tinge of innocence and sweetness to serve better with the righteousness she has in herself. The title of the movie and the character played by Bulbbul in the movie (of a ‘Chudail’) serves well with the mixture of surprises she is, being the perfect woman ‘with teeth to bare’.

CAMERA WORK AND COLOUR

Bulbbul is not only a movie but an experience that allows the audience to indulge in its fine cinematography. The neatness in the frames right from the opening sequence takes us on Bulbbul’s journey. The place looks awfully aligned and has a pristine look which is then complemented by the neat camera work followed till the last shot.

The use of several camera angles has put emphasis on the storyline whether it was in the introductory shot with the child bride’s dangling feet or the use of low camera angles to match her eye line with the elders. The camera work, however, does its job of staying a secondary aspect to the storyline well. It does not become obvious, making it brilliant rather than a hindrance.

What brings out the story even more and makes it different from the others is the use of the colour scheme.  The audience enters Bulbbul’s world in a standard colour theme resonating the real-life which changes to a soft pastel colour palette as the camera shifts from forest to a home where her marriage took place. Those colours brought out the softness and innocence which complements the calmness and purity of a child’s life. Another shift is seen during the narration of a horror story (about a ‘chudail’) by Satya in the palanquin subsequently taking place with Bulbbul putting her left foot forward during her grih pravesh in her new home.

All these subtle references cater to the bigger picture of the storyline. Making them meaningful for the story yet horror in nature.

Whenever the storyline hinted immense or direct danger from ‘chudail’ in the film a tinge of red spread on the screen giving a sense of danger to the audience while obviously allowing the elements of horror to come into being. This shade of red is different from the shade of magenta which is used during young Sartya’s narration of the horror-story in the start. The music, in spite of giving an eerie feeling, allows the audience to see an unfolded side of a ‘chudail’, full of spirit and furiously floating in the wind like a feather in front of a blood moon.

FEAR THROUGH MYTHOLOGY AND OCCULT ELEMENTS

As the makers of the movie Bulbbul call it a fairy tale with teeth, the tale tells the story of a woman blessed by Devi herself, to avenge the female victims of patriarchy. Goddess Kali has always been acknowledged as the destroyer of the wrongdoings and destructor of the wrong ones. Goddess Kali is known as an avatar of Goddess Parvati in Hindu mythology as the ultimate destructor of evil.

The goddess is an example of a feminist woman who existed way before the word or even the concept came out in being. Kali is one of the fiercest versions of a woman one can think of. The use of Devi in the movie resonates not only with power and destruction but the cause of feminism that a woman can hold as much power as she desires. She is known as the mother of all power which exists in nature in the most untamed and natural form.

This reference to goddess Kali is in line with the previous practice of the horror genre in the country to deploy occult references to make the film ‘horror’ enough.

NO MASCULINE VERSIONS OF ‘CHUDAIL’

The fact which makes us question the innovators of such creative terms used for women (such as ‘chudail’ and ‘daayan’) is the lack of their gender opposites. There is no mention of any male vixen or a male ‘chudail’ maybe because they did after all realize the impracticality of the claim of walking with their legs turned 180 degrees. We agree that the notion of equality amongst the genders of society emerged not too long ago but we still tried to have some faith in the non-discriminatory approach of these inventors, which did not even exist in the first place.

Women who did not conform to the ideas of patriarchy and who wanted to live their lives away from the hold of such chauvinistic ideas were termed as ‘Chudail’. When the norms of society hindered the achievements of the male society they were bent easily and even removed without a second thought because they were the ultimate ‘mothers of the norms’.

As a verbatim of Manusmriti notes, “They (women) pay no attention to beauty, they pay no heed to age; whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He’s a man!”

The mythological texts followed in India have given the male counterparts of the females an advantage over them as they were born masculine and were simply ‘men’. The status given by the patriarchal system to the male community has given them the privileges to order around those who were not like them even with the slightest of difference.

SYMBOLIC STORYTELLING

In a scene where Bulbbul is sexually assaulted by her brother-in-law, there are several shots of a Kali temple juxtaposed on it with certain kinds of wildflowers swaying with the wind. Those flowers are known as Kash Phool and are associated with Durga Pooja, an important festival of the province. The climax of the movie may put the audience question about the same flowers growing in the haveli which looks like an abandoned farm. Kash Phool is a unique flower that is known to grow on an abandoned piece of land only. The presence of kash phool in the haveli indicates it being abandoned post-Satya’s and Bulbbul’s departure from the same.  Subtle metaphors are a big part of the film. It chooses to let the viewers experience the pain of the character and not just give it away as a plot sequence.

Probably embracing such derogatory terminologies of the misogynistic society are the only options in hindsight because of the deep roots they have in our society. This option seems easier than the effort to get rid of them completely so that at least we get rid of the practices if not the terms. Bulbbul is not only an experience that makes the audience sweat in horror but it comes out as a genre that launches itself in a similar way Stree did a few years ago. It chooses to make you empathize and not sympathize. This is something that is a trademark of a good horror film.

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