Advertised as supernatural horror, Bulbbul was released on Netflix a month ago, another movie by a woman director that plunged right into feminist discourse.
The movie is set during the Bengal Presidency, a period during which the British Empire controlled a sizeable portion of South Asia, an economic hub that began in the 17th century with a minor trading post and expanded as the strength of the Mughal Empire waned. It was a time of child marriage, which wouldn’t be regulated until 1929 . It was also a time when the Bengal Sati Regulation , passed in 1829, was probably flouted to a great degree.
The imagery of female feet, free at first, then ceremoniously decorated, then shackled, shattered and finally healed into twisted implements that wreak hell, begins with a glimpse of five-year-old Bulbbul’s feet dangling from a tree branch. She’s a child bride, about to be married off to a Thakur, a feudal title given to powerful landowners/rulers. While she’s being prepped for the marriage ceremony by an aunt, she asks her why she needs to wear toe rings. The aunt answers that it pinches a nerve to keep the wife from flying away. When Bulbbul presses her further for an answer, the aunt reveals in a moment of honesty that “it’s to control you.”
I remember buying silver toe rings for myself and my friend once. Her mother was scandalized, because ‘only married women are supposed to wear toe rings’, the issue being that it’s a traditional form of acupressure to improve fertility, and we didn’t need to have babies at that time (lol). Anklets were designed for the mother-in-law to keep an ear out for her daughter-in-law’s whereabouts before they were eroticised in Bollywood films. The tradition of bride dipping her feet in red kumkum and entering the house, leaving a trail of red footprints signifies the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi and prosperity and wealth in the newlyweds home. Female feet represent a lot of things, aesthetically, symbolically, erotically, and if you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino film, you’re probably being subjected to his foot fetish against your will.
Little Bulbbul mistakes the Thakur’s younger brother, Satya, a kid not much older than her, for her husband, and the Thakur explains kindly to her on their marriage bed that she’ll soon know the difference between a brother-in-law and a husband. (Yikes.) He has a mentally disabled twin who is particularly curious about Bulbbul and calls her ‘gudiya’ (doll).
Satya and Bulbbul become fast friends. He scares her with ghost stories about a witch with twisted feet who haunts the forest outside. The plot is set in motion from here on. Twenty years later, there are rumours of an actual witch haunting the forest and evidence of several murders, but it’s attributed to animal attacks. The locals, however, blame the witch.
Bulbbul, decked up in gorgeous silks and fanning herself with peacock feathers, reigns over the thakurate like a queen. Her sister-in-law, Binodini, has lost her husband, the mentally-disabled twin of the Thakur, so she now lives the life of a widow, banished from the palace. Widowhood was taken as an erasure of womanhood, since the only thing that gave a woman status is gone, but Bulbbul is not particularly sympathetic to her sister-in-law’s plight. In fact, her behaviour towards her has an underpinning of spite, of the passive-aggressive mean girl kind. Satya returns from his education abroad and invites Binodini back to the palace for Durga Pooja, and Bulbbul is none too pleased about it.
Her behaviour is explained with a series of flashbacks. Binodini, stuck with her mentally disabled husband, was jealous of the status that Bulbbul has over her as the Badi Bahu (First Wife). Essentially, she was performing the duties of a wife in all areas until Bulbbul came along, and she’s been ousted from her spot as surrogate First Wife. She sensed a consummation nearing and was intent on blackening the rose-tinted glasses through which the Thakur views his young wife, because she wouldn’t be able to compete with the childlike Bulbbul.
It’s obvious that Bulbbul is infatuated with Satya, who is oblivious to her less than platonic affection for him. He likes her, but not in that way. There’s a scene where Binodini is unboxing her gold jewellery and offers some to Bulbbul, who refuses, itching to catch Satya in the courtyard before he leaves. The scene narrows down the reason why each of them are in it for the long haul; Binodini for the riches and Bulbbul for Satya. Binodini plants a sliver of suspicion in the Thakur’s ears. This technique of manipulation, which uses a twisted form of empathy to make sure none of the blame trickles back and finds the OP, has been perfected over thousands of years of female rivalry: “They’re young, it happens, let it be…”
Thakur has had it with Bulbbul. Even after he sends Satya away, any reminders of their attachment, like the burnt remnant of a page with their names on it (which might as well have read “Satya ❤ Bulbbul”) triggers him into dragging her out of the bath and striking her feet with a fire iron until they shatter.The foot obliteration scene is aesthetically done in slo-mo to let the significance of the complete destruction of Bulbbul’s freedom sink in, but I couldn’t help imagining the shot with someone crouching beneath Rahul Bose and throwing fake blood every time he swung his arm. 
They call the doctor, who’s new in town, to fix whatever’s left of Bulbbul’s feet (he seems to be the only woke dude around). Having no more feudal fucks left to give, the Thakur announces his departure. Until then, he used to protect Bulbbul from his more than curious brother, but now, vulnerable and in pain and strapped to a contraption while she’s healing, she has no one to protect her.
Bulbbul’s rape by the Thakur’s twin brother leaves little to the imagination. We can’t deny the representation of rape in the film industry inevitably contributes to voyeuristic pleasure, whether or not its deliberate (uh, well, it’s mostly deliberate) unless it’s a movie like Mad Max-Fury Road, probably the first one that implies that it’s been done but doesn’t show any of it, and conveys it just fine to the audience.
The plot comes way too close to the ‘rape as a rite of passage to supernatural strength’ trope. Well it’s not listed as a trope, but I’ve seen the story fictionalized much too often, so it should be. For every victim that comes out and talks/ campaigns against violence there are plenty more who can’t, owing to the dehumanizing and isolating nature of the crime, so it’s not empowering to be raped (we have to stop this bullshit trope).
The Greeks have Medusa and the Furies, the wronged women and the arbiters of justice who punish men for their immoral acts, especially those who ill-treat women, and WE have Kali and Durga. Bulbbul’s rage isn’t dramatic, it’s controlled, and the villagers have begun to respect her and come to her with their grievances, thus giving her a list of men to destroy. She has no reason to kill women, the social structure of the time period is imprisonment enough.
Binodini tells Bulbbul to stay silent about her rape, and even helps her look presentable. It’s the empathic silence of submissive women who can’t, or don’t, provide anything besides comfort to women who are wronged, thus prolonging collective oppression. It’s obvious by now that Bulbbul is the woman who went apeshit with rage and became the witch with twisty feet, but the images of her bouncing along trees against a “Ruby Woo” red sky reminds me of the bhooth bangla (haunted house) serials on government channels thirty years ago. It gets repetitively kitsch.
But I couldn’t get enough of this movie. The styling and the rich fabrics draped over Tripti Dimri, who does a fantastic job of both the innocent unsuspecting Bulbbul as well as the shrewd calculating Bulbbul, had me slobbering for more. I would have loved this as a series, provided they maintain that level of historical charm and artistic inspiration. We have plenty of traditional India left to show off.
The movie’s short, a mere 1hr 34 min., and the shooting took 33 days. The script is concise, conveying a lot with a thrifty synchronicity of dialogue and visuals. If Anvita Dutt was trying to convey female rage, she did it very well, but there’s a significant aspect of feminine oppression that’s missing from this piece: that of fecundity/infertility, pregnancy and the pressure on women to produce male offspring. To be fair, the story would have been a lot longer if they took this into consideration, so I understand the omission.
 To protect Hindu widows against the tradition of self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre
 Child marriage wouldn’t be banned until 1929, a hundred years later, officiated by Harbilas Sarda, a Rajasthani politician, with much opposition from the British authorities who didn’t want to rile up their Hindu and Muslim base, because cultural relativism and everything.
 I think the scene would have stood out if the acting in this part hadn’t been subpar, though the actors do a swell job with the rest of the movie.