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Spirit of a woman: Is Indian horror finally looking beyond the "witch"?

Sympathy towards the wronged is a welcome change

Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is a far cry from its original. The slapstick jokes fall flat, the token ‘ami je tomar’ intermittently playing in the background sounds jarring, Kartik Aryan’s attempt at speaking in Bengali was anything but music to the ears, and even Tabu’s brilliant acting cannot save a film that was trying too hard. And while the film makes for a lacklustre viewing, it highlights the cementing of the change in the narrative of the ‘wronged woman seeking revenge as a witch’ in Hindi cinema. 

Early on, the 1958 paranormal romance film Madhumati depicted the woman protagonist dying after escaping from her oppressor but is born again to avenge herself and punish her murderer. In 2002, in the horror film Raaz, the lead couple had to deal with a vengeful female ghost until it was discovered that the ghost, while alive, had an extramarital relationship with the male lead. On being rejected by the male lead, the woman dies by suicide and returns as a spirit to take revenge on her mistreatment. The 2007 film Bhool Bhulaiyaa has a similar premise: the female protagonist Avni is possessed by the spirit of Manjulika, whose lover was killed by a cruel king. And in Ek Thi Daayan in 2013, the witch or daayan is a unidimensional evil character who vows to return and target the male protagonist for having killed her.


A still from Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022)

So while witches or supernatural figures have become a means for women to take agency over their lives, it was not until Stree in 2018 that changed the perception of a witch as merely a wronged woman avenging herself. When Stree became a surprise hit, the horror-comedy created a buzz for its story. The film, which was able to elicit screams and laughter from its viewers equally, was based on Indian folklore about a witch who abducts men, only leaving their clothes behind. However, what stood out in the film was its humane and considerate treatment of the witch. We learn later in the film that the witch is seeking revenge for the murder of her and her lover by the village men. It is the male protagonist in the film who realises that beneath the veneer of revenge lies the witch’s desire to be treated with respect and love. Sympathetically painting the witch was a novel lens through which to look at the witch’s character. Parallel to Stree, even in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, it is Kartik Aryan’s character who is able to understand the pain of Manjulika and help her to seek justice. 

Following Stree, the Anushka Sharma-produced film Pari delved further into the humanisation of the supernatural woman trope. Rukhsana, played by Anushka Sharma, is a human but is pregnant with a demon child. When she is happenstance saved by Arnab, the two fall in love, and the child born is also a human. At the end of the film, Arnab states that the love of Rukhsana is what made the baby human. This shift in the compassionate treatment of women as supernatural beings has taken place in the backdrop of the MeToo movement in India and increasing debates on the inadequate justice system for sexual crimes against women. The earlier stereotypes of women as witches in horror films have transitioned to now exploring how and why the oppressed woman transforms into a daayan or chudail

Bulbbul in 2020 raised the bar further when its female protagonists featured the dual characteristics of the witch/chudail and Goddess/Devi. The female lead Bulbbul in the film gets married to her older husband Indranil as a child. Her husband physically abuses her to the extent that her feet get broken, and while she is recuperating, her brother-in-law sexually assaults her, leaving her lifeless. However, Bulbbul transforms to become a witch to avenge herself and other wronged women like her in the village. And suddenly, for the film's viewer, the folklore of Indian witches with twisted feet, long black hair and scary eyes become more meaningful. The village doctor Sudip who had been treating Bulbbul, knows the truth and poignantly says, Rakshas nahi hai woh, Devi hai” (She is not a demon, but a goddess).


A still from Pari (2018)


More recently, in 2021, the film Roohi can be seen as a parable of self-love in women since the movie ends with the female protagonist Roohi ‘running away’ with Afza, the demonic spirit in possession of her body. And while the gradual metamorphosis of the female witch in Hindi cinema is commendable, an aspect that has remained steadfast is that all of the female characters either need to encounter instances of being sexually assaulted and spurned by men or their lovers getting killed before the female as a witch takes control of their lives. While not directly related, in The Bechdel Test, one criterion is that the women discuss everything else but men. But somehow, in the witch figure of Hindi cinema, the female must encounter the man in some form or situation. 

Films like Bhool Bhulaiyaa or Stree become popular because a vengeful storyline is replete with a cathartic release; only after a violation such as sexual violence or murder has occurred can one feel good about the revenge. Often such a narrative exemplifies the trope that a woman must be broken violently before she blossoms and takes revenge. The trauma validates the woman’s existence, and despite the focus on female power, the storyline gets shaped by the torture and exploitation of the female body. There is rarely a focus on the internal journey or healing from the trauma for the women. Roohi and Pari gave us glimpses inside the women’s turmoil, but they were patchy at best. 

Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is a film that underscores the change in the depiction of witches in Hindi horror films. And although the film speaks to the current climate of MeToo and TimesUp movements, another transition in Hindi cinema is required that overturns the exploitative tropes and does not rely on violation of the female body. What we need now is the creation of empowering narratives that treat their female protagonists with nuance, healing and power.

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About the author

When not overdoing her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found teaching Global Cultural and Creative Industries. After a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne to pursue her PhD in Bollywood and Soft Power. She binges on Kdrama and is currently learning Korean and Mandarin. She is South Asian Today's in-house Film and TV Expert and writes a monthly column, Anubhanama. Instagram: @anubhanama




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