There was a time when for most of India, watching horror on screen was about devouring the pulp version of it churned out by the Ramsay Brothers in the 80s and 90s, mixed with varying proportions of gore, sleaze and scares. The genre evolved from there but one thing remained largely consistent in most of the stories that came up right until recent times: its portrayal of women.
Amidst all the changing technology that allowed filmmakers to give their audiences better jump scares, the roles meant for women remained similar. Either they were the ‘possessed’ and took in most cases a man to rid them of the supernatural entity (pointing to the stereotype of women being weaker) or they were sexually attractive and had to be punished for it by playing roles of perpetrators like black magic-wielding witches or victims of the monsters.
“Sex sells on Indian screens, and horror films use that to attract audiences,” says film blogger Diu Somani, who goes by the name TheCineSurgeon. The intertwining of female sexuality with horror is apparent in the case of 2014 erotic thriller Ragini MMS 2 where actor Sunny Leone takes on the role of the ghost in the film, in line with the idea that not only women are more susceptible to being taken over by the dark forces (also a recurring idea in much of Hollywood horror) but also that it comes with a sexual manifestation of the supernatural. So many other Bollywood films from these decades carried this intertwining of sexy and scary—Ragini MMS , Raaz , 1920 , Haunted 3-D , Hisss , Alone—that it coined the sub-genre of horrex (horror + sex).
“There is a distinction between virgin and whore which is created in horror films, where the whore is portrayed as a demon and is punished by the genre for her sexuality,” says political expert Tannisha Averrsekar, commenting on the politicisation of gender in cinema roles.
The just-launched Bulbbul, currently on Netflix India’s top charts, has a major point of differentiation when it comes to delivering horror: It has a strong storyline. Instead of kitschy make-up, constant sound reels of a woman screaming and shitty writing, the film does a great job of telling the story of its lead character, Bulbbul, a metaphor for the many injustices faced by Indian women.
Married off as a young girl to a landowner three times her age and size, Bulbbul turns into the archetypical reclining mistress of the manor, 20 years later. The story topples what we know about witches, subverting the patriarchal trope of the witch by reimagining her as a wronged woman. Many critics thought the use of the rape-revenge device in the movie was still problematic but it’s important to see how the abuse of the woman in the movie is not used as a spectacle but to portray a horrifying reality that many women experience. In the process of meting out punishment to her perpetrators, Bulbbul is also elevated from an ordinary woman to a goddess—an analogy people have had varying opinions about but like in Stree, at least we now have films representative of women’s collective rage.
“Bulbbul has reached a saturation point after she has faced child marriage, domestic violence and rape, and this is the saturation point many Indian women reach because of societal injustice,” says Aswathi Naduthodi, post production supervisor of Bulbbul. “A parallel is drawn between Bulbbul and Goddess Kali (who represents sexuality and violence in Indian mythology) to portray that Bulbbul is not a demon but the manifestation of a Goddess seeking justice.”
A similar narrative is seen in Stree where the movie ends with the message that women need to be given more respect in society. Stree, who haunts the town Chanderi, was a seductive courtesan who fell in love with a man, but they were both killed by other jealous men. The injustice which she faced, led her to kidnap men and derobe them out of vengeance. But it’s all done with consent, with a literate ghost making men afraid of women and scared of stepping out, a reality many women live with on a daily basis. In this way, in Stree too, the ghost is a woman who seeks equality in society. “O Stree, protect us” is the last line in the film, highlighting the empowered role of protectors which women can play in society. Other recent films like Pari (2018)—also produced by actor Anushka Sharma who has produced Bulbbul—have helped push the boundaries of the genre too, even if this one was wrapped in confused, underwhelming storytelling.
Horror finally gets a makeover
Till recent times, Indian horror was often classified as a genre which produced B-grade films. The cheap production design, heavy and fake makeup, overdramatic monotonous thriller scores were often looked at as campy. Moreover, their association with the macabre meant a lot of it was shrouded in darkness, with little attention paid to costume or set detailing. “Horror filmmakers did not focus on aesthetics previously because the fake makeup, torn down havelis, monotonous theme music added to entertainment in the film as a part of scaring the audiences,” says Somani. “However, now horror movies like Bulbbul are more aesthetic because they focus on highlighting the story instead of giving out just shallow entertainment.”
Bulbbul is extravagant in terms of its aesthetics. “The costume, jewellery, design and elegant set are all things we expect from a Sanjay Leela Bhansali romance,” says film critic and scholar Dr Piyush Roy. Bulbbul has beautifully designed costumes throughout the film as well. “The scenes are designed beautifully like a fantasy romance film,” explains Veera Kapur, costume designer for Bulbbul. “The protagonist here wears bold and vivid colours which adds more class to the film. The aesthetic appeal of the film evokes interest from audiences which are not limited to horror enthusiasts.”
But why does horror work for feminist storytelling?
When people watch a mainstream Bollywood movie, they do not expect to see vivid scenes of violence, abuse or gore. A mainstream Bollywood movie is likely to be a flop if it has distinct and long scenes of violence because the audience in India is largely used to watching mainstream cinema for its mindless entertainment. However, in horror films, people come in expecting some level of gore and shock. As soon as a film is categorised as horror, audiences are prepared to experience some kind of discomfort arising from fear while watching the film.
The audience’s preparedness to watch uncomfortable scenes, then, makes it possible to portray women’s struggles, trajectories and experiences. “It is possible through this genre to showcase the extreme violence which women face, which would otherwise be unpopular in mainstream Bollywood cinema,” says Roy.
Adds Naduthodi, “Some people think horror means watching a ghost or a witch who is ‘scary’. It is important for Indian society to know that there are very real and prevalent horrors in society, which are no less scary from ghosts.”
According to research, horror films create an “alarm reaction” in the audience’s mind, which leads to high blood pressure and muscle tension. This activates their defence mechanism. Portraying women’s struggles in horror films ensures that the message of women empowerment reaches the audiences more strongly as the audience’s defence mechanisms are heightened while watching the film. When the audience sees violence against women portrayed as horror in the film, they realise that they need to protect themselves and others from gender based violence in reality too. It turns a women’s issue into a personal issue for the audience.
Many of the experiences of being a woman are highly invisible—be it the consequences of living in patriarchal societies, the micro-aggressions of misogyny or our complex relationship with our bodies. Horror, a genre known to make the invisible visible, can also make visible these lived experiences. With audiences coming in with the major purpose of being scared, what the genre is now doing is just flipping where the scare factor comes from. Here, female villains are as likely as female heroes; they are as powerful and just as terrifying, and sometimes, both.
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