This article will not quench an inquisitive person’s thirst for answers to questions around gender, femininity, sexuality, horror, monsters, witches, and many more loaded terms. It is simply a conglomeration of thoughts that keep sprouting in my mind, time and again. Think of it as a thought diary, where seemingly random thoughts are scribbled all over, and yet are connected to each other. This article promises no closure but seeks only to ask questions and leave it at that.
The woman from Kalliyankattu has been born
She has eyes and hair, the girl has grown
Blood lips appeared along with singing,
I have always loved horror movies. From The Exorcist to Conjuring, I have devoured them all. Therefore, when Bulbbul premiered on Netflix, I readily gave up my examination preparation to jump into watching it.
The plot wasn’t really so mysterious that I couldn’t guess who the Chudail (witch) gobbling up the men in the village was. Yet, the symbolism used throughout the film enthralled me. The pair of feet dangling in the air at the beginning of the film; the same feet soaked in blood-red aalta (a red ceremonial dye used on the hands and feet); the toe-rings, and Bulbbul, the protagonist, wincing upon wearing them; the moon and the sky coloured a deep red; Goddess Kali; the long, disheveled hair of the witch; the same feet now pointing backwards; men, who have earlier violated, abused and wronged women, now dying at the hands of the witch; all these images kept me hooked until the end. I was anxious with Bulbbul when Babu Moshai wanted to send Satya abroad, I was shaken to the core to see Bulbul face violence and sexual harassment at home, I empathised with her when she found solace in Dr. Sudip, I cheered for her when she came back from death to avenge her pain. I finished watching the movie with a heavy heart, thinking of the many ways in which women negotiate with injustice, how they rebel and wage numerous wars over their lifetime against a structure that ties them down, suppresses their voice, fetters their movement, constricts them within four walls, and quashes their desires, amongst other wrongs.
But what really fascinated me was the figure of the Chudail. One look at her and I knew I was already familiar with her. I had met her when I was a child, in the stories my grandmother narrated to me at night. I have met her in the lines of horror folk tales, I have seen her many times on the screen. I know her well. Hair flowing wildly, big black eyes that have a fire burning in them, semi-naked, long arms and legs that extend beyond what is humanly possible, sometimes with grotesque, long teeth protruding out of her lips, horns on her head, and the feet characteristically turned the other way round. Further, she is violated by men, oppressed by patriarchy, going on to become a Chudail, a monster.
The woman struggled between the canines of her lover
The lover tore open the heart of the woman
Blood oozed on the Kalli Plant
The woman breathed her last
People are surrounding
People are shouting
That the woman is reborn
The woman is filled with hatred
One has to just reach into cultural memories to access the image of the Chudail. We all know her. She deceives men with her sensuality, luring them into the forest, before revealing her true form and devouring them. She may sing, call a man’s name in the sweetest voice he has ever heard, enamouring him with her allure and then put him under her spell. She comes out at night, as a beautiful woman, to trap men, and eat or kill them. This is what Bulbbul does, this is also what another 2018 Bollywood movie featuring the figure of the Chudail, Stree, tells us through a comedic storyline.
As I ponder more, this imagery further resonates with the dominant, cultural imagination of a witch. I am immediately transported to the horror that was unleashed in the village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 to eject the loathed idea of the witch from society. Back then, witches were considered to be followers of Satan who rejected life and love and, instead, embraced death, destruction, and everything considered defiling and vile that cannot be a part of civilised society. These women were believed to belong not to this world but to the supernatural, engaging in magic, with the sole intent of causing harm. The imagery hasn’t changed much, even after four centuries. Here, witches or dayans are believed to cast an evil shadow over children, causing death, disease, bad weather, a poor harvest, and other devastating events. All of these cultural concepts about witches build a composite image of her, and we shall try to analyse it. This woman has many names; witch, dayan, chudail, petni, monstress. She is considered as being against the concept of (reproductive) creation and dedicated only to destruction. She freely and unrestrainedly engages in sexual activity. She moves however and wherever she wants. She rejects the very concept of civilised society and believes in breaking boundaries rather than maintaining them. Her laughter is unshackled in a way that is blood-curdling. She dances around unrestricted. She shrieks with rage and unleashes her fury on the ‘innocent’ lives of men and children. She relishes death and feeds on blood. She belongs to a domain beyond the scope of all things possible, thinkable, and tolerable in society. She is feared and loathed; she evokes social anxiety and belongs to the realm of horror.
An image of a chudail from a Hindi story
Courtesy: ChewingGum TV Youtube Channel available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1M-kQxt9lg
She began to scream with a hysterical laughter
She is ruling upon the story of betrayal
She left and deserted the home
She is leaving while singing the song of paayaaram
Wherever she goes there is fire
She experienced what it is like
To be bitten by a lustful, mad dog
She opened her eyes
A question keeps creeping into my mind: Who are these women, really?
This makes me think about the first three women who were hanged in Salem for being ‘witches’. All of them were marginalised in their milieu; one was a slave; the second, a destitute woman with a temper; and the third, a woman scorned for her romantic involvement with an indentured labourer. There was no potion-making involved, no material manifestation of magical spells.
Delving into instances of witch-hunting in India, research suggests that the women susceptible to allegations of practicing witchcraft are Dalit or Adivasi women, women living alone, widowed women, or women with property. One instance speaks of how two women who owned land were accused of being witches and causing the death of their male relatives, only because they had protested against male relatives defecating in their crops. The image of a monster as a witch, who is dangerous to the very fabric of society, seems to be superimposed on women who challenge the hetero-patriarchal system, even slightly.
Now, these thoughts are hardly original. Many feminist analyses have theorised that women who seek independence and who resist patriarchy are often branded witches or dayans. Women who are sexually active, financially independent, who own property, live outside of the framework of family, who are not directly under the authority of a man, who are out in the public domain, who belong to marginalised classes and castes and assert their rights, who rage against injustice; feminists have argued how such women threaten to disrupt order, systems, and hierarchy in a patriarchal society which, in turn, attempts to regulate all kinds of disruptive behavior by branding them as witches. Many feminist movements espouse a counter ideology, and call for reclaiming the label of ‘witch’ as one that ought to be celebrated rather than rejected, and which can be used to break the silence and make visible subjective experiences and histories of women, and challenge the dominant male-centric discourse in society. Thus, the symbol of the witch becomes a “crucial metaphor for herstory, that is, a form of feminist mythology constituting an alternative to the established male-centered master-story.” (Sempruch, 2004).
Fury turned into ember
Before jumping with fury, she walked on the embers
And screamed out in pain
She is wriggling with a fury that cannot fail
To pierce the nerves of Perumal
She is preparing
To stay awake on the Palm tree
Neeli is coming
Through the darkness
She is coming
In search of death
Coming back to the dominant cultural imagination of the demoness, another question itches in the corners of my mind. The symbol of the witch has survived in our socio-cultural, religious milieu for too long for it to just be superimposed on women who appear threatening to patriarchal structures. Does such a disruptive image help maintain another image, an opposing image which is readily assimilated in society? The witch, demoness, is a symbol of horror; it threatens to annihilate social and cultural integrity. Is it possible that this symbol, which invites repulsion and demands extermination, helps in reinstating its alternative which is acceptable, encouraged, and even worshipped in society? In other words, does the image of the witch sustain an acceptable, civilised, sociable form of femininity that is its polar opposite? Does the image present an example of how not be a woman, thereby defining how to be a woman?
If I were to have a conversation with Judith Butler about this, she would say gender accomplishment would require a thorough, rigorous performance of mundane ways of being, which are understood by our patriarchal society to be feminine. In order words, in order to be a woman, one has to ‘perform femininity’ at all times. It is the category of femininity that I am inquisitive about; how does this category of femininity get defined and how is it maintained?
Is it possible that the fantastical image of the ‘monstrous-feminine’ (Barbara Creed 1993) constructs as well as maintains the image of ideal femininity? Bulbbul demonstrates this distinction beautifully. Throughout the movie, we are witness to a to-and-fro visuality of how Bulbbul was before she became a Chudail, and what she became after. Not only do her feet turn in the opposite direction, but she also transforms, from a demure, pleasant woman to an imposing one, who claims authority over the haveli. Before becoming a Chudail, she was the coy and fresh-faced young wife of Babu Moshai, deriving pleasure playing on swings in a child-like manner. After she becomes a Chudail, she listens to classical music, instructs her sister-in-law to make her paan (a preparation made of betel leaf) and attends to all matters of the village herself. Before, she basks in the love of Satya and wishfully builds a story with him. After, she dismisses Satya as one of the many men who have wronged her, seeks a lover in Dr. Sudip, and chastises him for not courting her. Before, she was bare-footed. After, she wears shoes and unabashedly places her feet on a man’s lap. Before, she serves men and remains docile. After, she is brazen and challenges male authority. These changes, while accompanying her supernatural embodiment, are all too human. They indicate a transformation in how gender is performed, not in how the supernatural is conducted
Thus, the monstrous feminine is all that the ideal feminine should not be: challenging patriarchal authority and caste and class hierarchy, not sticking diligently to socio-culturally-specific gender roles and, instead, questioning them and in doing so, dismantling them. What should the ideal feminine look like then? Care-giving and nurturing, a symbol of (reproductive) creation, holding relationships together, remaining within the domestic domain, demure, submissive, subservient, unchallenging of and unthreatening to order.
The monstrous feminine, thus, seems to not only challenge female heterosexuality as primarily catering to the needs of others, but also questions the gendered norms surrounding female heterosexuality. In other words, to be a woman is to qualify certain behaviors pertaining to female heterosexuality, and the image of the witch challenges those very behaviors and actions. If one studies the monstrous figure with meticulous detail, across many cultural mythologies, one may see a subversion of heterosexual gender roles. Yet, in that subversion, there is an essence of maintaining the docile, the acquiescent feminine, since the monstrous feminine is relegated to the realm of unacceptable, thereby leaving space for the ideal feminine to prosper. Can there be a space in-between where women can exist without being violently shoved into boxes: either Madonna or the whore, the monster or the angel? Can there be an image where the woman is full of contradictions and complexity and yet socially acceptable? Can a witch’s femininity be assimilated into the social fabric? Or shall it be forever cursed to exile? I can only wonder.
Justyna Sempruch. Feminist Constructions of the ‘Witch’ as a Fantasmatic Other. Body & Society. 2004;10(4):113-133. doi:10.1177/1357034X04047858
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.
 The lyrics are a translation of the Malayalam song Kaliyankatt Neeli created in collaboration with Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt by the band Thaikkudam Bridge for their album Namah. The song is about a demoness named Neeli, who seduces men and kills them. The lyrics have been translated by Aabha Muralidharan