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Netflix's Bulbbul: Reclaiming The Witch Within

I am a Chudail & I like it

Warning: Spoilers ahead

TW: Mentions of Domestic violence

Many years ago, I was sitting with my maternal grandmother on the balcony with my hair left open to dry after a bath. 

My grandmother reprimanded me saying I shouldn’t be exposing my hair like that because a petni might overtake my body! I laughed asking her what even is a petni?! Petni is the Bengali equivalent of a Chudail. Chudail in popular Indian folklore and stories is a mythical woman figure often associated with horror and supernatural existences. She turns into a chudail due to some traumatic or unnatural death or some unfulfilled task. A chudail is usually described as a shapeshifter who is ugly looking and has the ability to lure men. Several stories abound about a chudail’s evil powers and demonic activities. I grew up on the tales of what my maternal grandmother had told me. According to her a petni had long, luscious black hair, lived in the peepul tree and had feet that were backwards!

But as with any mythical demonic creatures, our very own chudail is no less alluring than a vampire luring in girls.

They have held sway in popular media and recently found somewhat of a stronghold in Bollywood again. I write this on the heels of Netflix’s latest release of the film Bulbbul

This is not your average story about a chudail out to kill men. This is a story about not just Bulbbul but several women who have had to bear the brunt of a patriarchal society and are routinely abused and expected to remain silent. Instead of demonising the chudail, the mythical figure is revisited and refashioned as a symbol of empowerment. Bulbbul as chudail kills men who have done women wrong.

Mainstream and popular media like films are part of the ecosystem that feeds into the society’s imagination. Over the years constant reiteration of symbols, themes and narratives becomes the norm. So the chudail as a figure is a highly negative one -  a supernatural villain with powers who kills men or even children. Nothing wrong in having villains!


But where Bulbbul succeeds is in subverting the figure of chudail positively to question the highly gendered roles the men and women are forced to succumb to. Bulbbul marries into an aristocratic family as a child bride and her husband is several years older to her. The only other person closer to her age is her husband’s youngest brother Satya with whom she develops a close bond. There’s also her husband’s twin brother who lives with a mental illness and his wife Binodini. 

Binodini is older and subtly depicted to have relations with Bulbbul’s husband. Her character is grey, she is a victim herself as well as one of the perpetrators of Bulbbul’s suffering. After a horrific incident of domestic physical and sexual abuse, Bulbbul, instead of withdrawing into a shell of silence, becomes the dreaded chudail who brings to book men who have been similarly abusing the women in their lives. 

Even though her transformation is supernatural, her change is a metaphor for women breaking free from the shackles of patriarchy and becoming an empowered individual. 

From a subservient and docile wife Bulbbul becomes the doyen of her personal and physical space in the palatial aristocratic manor. She takes ownership of her destiny and identity. And this change is visible in her confident demeanour. On Satya’s return home after five years, he makes snide remarks on how drastically her behaviour has changed and how unbecoming it is of the manor’s eldest daughter-in-law to have male friends or not cover herself in their presence.

At one point, Binodini taunts Bulbbul and says, “You are not the Lord but a Milady, behave like one.”

This is not the first time that the character of chudail has been revisited and rechristened with contemporary debates around women equality. 

In 2018 the film Stree, a horror comedy, became an unintentional hit. In this film too the figure of chudail is feared and men keep disappearing. 

It is later revealed that when the chudail was alive, she was spurned by her lover. Her tormented soul as a chudail was seeking love and respect. When the film’s male protagonist treats the chudail with kindness and respect, her soul finally comes to a rest. 

Now haven’t we all, as women, demanded this one simple aspect of respect in our lives as well? 

Another good example is that of the film Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie. This was again a revisionist take on the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, wherein the story is told from the ‘evil’ fairy’s point of view. The end result is a sympathetic and a surprisingly delicate story between a mother and daughter. 

When you have movements like the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter that force the society to rethink their previously held beliefs, it behooves for popular culture to embrace these changes and depict contemporary and relevant themes. 

In recent times mainstream media have been called out for the lack of representation of women, people of colour and LGBTQIA+. A common question often asked is why should the media even represent the entire spectrum of people around us and the issues they encounter.

Media and society feed each other in an endless loop and my retort is that when I view any contemporary film or show, am I seeing myself in it? Am I seeing the issues that bother me? 

For storytelling to remain relevant, it needs to evolve and constantly rewrite itself. We need to move beyond the black and white tropes of damsel in distress and the vamp. We need to, nay, demand new stories, heroines and tropes. 

It is time our media depicts new female protagonists who are strong, fearless, layered and complex. 

Films like Bulbbul are an example of a cause and story that many women in the society can relate to. 

Towards the end of the film when Satya is fighting Dr. Sudip, he asks him why he wants to save the chudail? Dr. Sudip replies that ‘She isn’t a chudail, but a Goddess!’. 

Here’s to more chudails, witches and dismantling the patriarchy with some legit scares.

Note: The film is available for viewing on Netflix.

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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