Bulbbul and the 21st century global Gothic: How the Netflix Original imbibes the genre's characteristic tropes
Throughout its 90-minute runtime, Bulbbul engages with many different tropes of the Gothic genre.
Among the many things that writer-director Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul gets right, the role of the Thakur’s ‘haveli’ or mansion is particularly impressive. From the moment we see the film’s protagonist, the titular Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) arriving at the old house after her marriage to the eldest thakur scion Indranil (Rahul Bose), it’s clear that this haveli, gloomy on the outside and tastefully decorated from the inside, is going to be an important character, almost, in the story.
In a crucial scene, we see Bulbbul and Dr Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) telling the younger thakur Satya (Avinash Tiwary) about one of the good doctor’s patients — a woman who was clearly getting beaten up by her husband. Every time Dr Sudip’s services were required, she would claim to have “fallen down the stairs”. As Bulbbul notes with a meaningful smile, “There’s only one house in the village that has stairs”, alluding to the haveli. Later, we learn that this mirrors how Dr Sudip came to meet Bulbbul: after Indranil beat her up brutally, he called the doctor to dress her wounds and claimed that she had fallen down the stairs.
It’s fitting that Bulbbul pays such close attention to the role of the house here, for the film is a postmodern example of the Gothic genre — a literary aesthetic originating in late 18th century England that took Romanticism’s gains (relatively simple language, an emphasis on “the sublime”, ie experiences outside the realm of strict logic) and built upon them to create a space where monsters, ghosts, demons, witches and spirits co-existed with human characters and impacted their lives in politically interesting ways.
Ann Radcliffe (The Romance of the Forest, 1791), Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron, 1775) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1795) are considered some of the pioneers of the genre, while writers like Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe (stories like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) and Bram Stoker (Dracula) were responsible for its overwhelming popularity in the 19th century.
Fear and loathing in Thakurbari
Throughout its 90-minute runtime, Bulbbul engages with many different tropes of the Gothic genre. To begin with, there’s the idea of the ghost/monster/witch embodying repressed emotions or desires, articulating opinions that are considered taboo, not fit for ‘polite society’. MR James, perhaps the greatest-ever writer of ghost stories (1862-1936), once said that ghosts in fiction “should be malevolent, odious” and that “nice” ghosts or apparitions (think Casper, or Slimer from The Ghostbusters) had no use in narrative beyond the novelty value. What James meant wasn’t a value judgment on the concept of the ghost — he was saying that ghosts have to have an agenda. They have to be driven by a clear and demonstrable purpose that evokes the events of their (human) lives. To that extent, James’s stories were a kind of late 19th century upgrade on Gothic fiction — while they did engage with some of the tropes (fading, bleeding old houses, for one), they also brought the Gothic genre closer to ‘realism’ in the modern sense of the word. His stories often featured scholars with antiquarian interests, generally investigating an artifact central to the supernatural events taking place in the story.
The role of the haunted house can also be interpreted this way. The old building that serves as the setting for these stories once had a purpose, no doubt — but in the absence of that purpose, it has become ghostly, the site of murder and mayhem, reflective of the anxiety that comes with purposelessness.
In Bulbbul, of course, this idea drives most of the action in the story. Though the fact of Bulbbul being the ‘chudail’ (witch) who’s killing off the village’s most prominent men is hinted at right from the beginning, it’s only in the second half that we find out why these men were chosen. When we learn that the witch’s victims were wife-beaters, paedophiles and so on, the semantic framework around the witch’s character changes visibly — throughout the first half, we’re told (generally by Satya, who wants to “hunt” the witch) that the witch is just another predator, another resident of the forest who can be bested by the hunter’s gun. In the second half, however, the ‘divinity’ of the witch is gradually amped up, until finally, we have our first clear vision of Bulbbul as the witch.
In this stunning, crimson-hued shot, we (alongside Dr Sudip) see the witch in corporeal form for the first time: her hair is blowing in the wind, her blood-stained mouth curves into a beatific smile even as violin music completes the ‘heroic’ framing — Bulbbul becomes a forest aspect of the Goddess Kali here, balancing the scales of justice on behalf of the village’s brutalised women.
The Goddess bit also refers to another Gothic trope — the idea of rhyming events, which Nietzsche later extrapolated to “eternal recurrence”. Events, themes and yes, tragedies, repeat themselves in Gothic literature, either exactly or in an analogous manner. “The seventh son of a seventh son”, for example, is an old narrative concept that bestows mystical (often re-incarnation powers) on such an individual, born to a seventh son with no female siblings in between (see the 2014 fantasy film Seventh Son, for instance).
In Bulbbul, too, the night of the Pujo (which is to say, a night dedicated to the Goddess) is when Indranil’s brother Mahendra is murdered, and years later, during the climax of the film, Bulbbul murders Satya’s carriage-driver on that same night. Satya is thus doomed to watch history repeat itself. He is as powerless to save his driver as he was when his brother was murdered.
The character of Satya, of course, is a callback to one of the most famous Gothic characters of all time — Jonathan Harker, one of the protagonists of Stoker’s Dracula. Like Harker, Satya studies law in England. Like Harker, Satya’s education and worldliness give him an unshakeable belief in the primacy of cold, unemotional logic. Just like Harker says “Everything happens for a reason” in Stoker’s novel, Satya “playing Sherlock” is referred to in a scene from Bulbbul. And just like Harker, Satya takes it upon himself to kill the “monster”, a decision that changes everything for the story.
Bulbbul and the 21st century ‘global Gothic’
In recent years, scholars have noted the growing cultural dominance of the Gothic aesthetic across media. In her 2012 book Gothicka, Victoria Nelson writes about how writers like JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling “helped fuel the immense fantasy literature industry of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”. To distinguish these latter-day efforts from their historical precursors, Nelson calls them ‘gothick’ with a ‘k’. According to Nelson, “In this hybrid subgenre, dark Gothick themes are typically subsumed within a brighter Romantic folktale matrix in which ‘good’ supernatural creatures such as fairies and elves counterbalance the forces of evil.” Fred Botting uses the terms “candygothic” and “Disneygothic” to describe the way the Gothic has been stripped of its original subversion — in favour of a more ‘universal’, diffuse, adaptable spirituality that’s more likely to be accepted by audiences around the world.
Think about the number of ‘cutesy’ neo-Gothic cultural behemoths in the 21st century: The Addams Family (2019), the Hotel Transylvania franchise, Monsters Inc. (2001), the new Ghostbusters movies, and many, many others. Together, their role in the “franchise industrial complex” has meant a drastic dilution of their Gothic origins. Even outside of the franchise system, some of the most famous filmmakers of the world have churned out neo-Gothic products of their own (like Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, which Bulbbul has been compared to by several critics).
In the introduction to the 2012 book Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century, Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben write: “The pervasiveness of Gothic is not just cultural but also commercial, inscribed as it is in a context of incessant globalised consumption and commoditisation. These processes are crucial as they seek to radically disnature the Gothic. How can the Gothic go on defending marginality once it has become not only trendy but practically run of the mill? How can the Gothic go on celebrating otherness as it becomes increasingly homogenised?”
Like a lot of neo-Gothic products, Bulbbul, too is beholden to this ‘homogenising’ effect (it is, after all, a Netflix Original, specifically designed to appeal to a global audience). This becomes obvious in the way the character Binodini’s (Paoli Dam) story is revealed. We are told that she, the wife of Indranil’s developmentally disabled twin Mahendra, is jealous of Bulbbul because despite being significantly younger, she is the elder thakur’s wife and is hence addressed as badi bahu/boro bou, the elder daughter-in-law. This honorific, and all the prestige/social capital that it summons, gives Binodini the motive to play Iago — she plants the idea of Satya and Bulbbul being secret lovers inside Indranil’s head. After Satya’s departure for England, she leads Indranil down a rage-fuelled rabbit hole and he beats Bulbbul up mercilessly.
Here’s the thing: Dam is dark-skinned, and Bollywood has a long history of casting dark-skinned actors in ‘caste-coded’ roles; the implication is dark-skinned = lower-caste or dark-skinned = adivasi and so on. We’re never really told Binodini’s caste, to be fair, but there is an extended sequence set in the morning after Bulbbul is beaten and raped. Binodini begins recounting everything that was told to her at the time of her wedding to Mahendra — everything that now holds true for the battered Bulbbul as well: “He’s a little mad, but he’s a thakur. He’s a little mad, but you’ll get jewels. He’s a little mad, but you’ll get silk. You’ve married into a family of thakurs.” Could it be that Binodini’s ‘evil’ acts were in fact the actions of a lower-caste woman pushed into a corner by the all-pervasive thakur hegemony around her? Could it be that the villain of the piece was in fact another wronged woman, much like the Bulbbul-witch herself?
Bulbbul, however, is not interested in questions like this because at the end of the day, it is part of the new, homogenised ‘global Gothic’ where the realities of a particular time and place are sacrificed in favour of commercial viability.
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