By Reya Mehrotra
For a long time, Indian cinema has portrayed the female ghost as a dangerous demon with long hair, bulging eyes and twisted feet. That narrative is slowly changing with a clutch of filmmakers giving the witch a voice and story of her own
The 2018 horror-comedy film Stree made headlines for its different storyline. It was based on an Indian folk legend about a witch who abducts men at night, leaving behind only their clothes. Based in Chanderi, the ingenious scriptwriting portrayed the men of the small town as afraid to step out of their houses after dark and hiding behind their wives. But what truly made the film stand out was its humane treatment of the female supernatural figure, who was shown in the climax as somebody who only desired love and respect. In giving her a sympathetic back story, the film, unlike others in the genre, painted her as the protagonist rather than the antagonist.
Stree is just one example of a niche yet refreshing change that is under way in cinema. One wherein writers are using a lot of sensitivity in the portrayal of the proverbial chudail (witch). Moving beyond how horror films have mostly stereotyped the ghost as female, films like Stree are now exploring why the oppressed female becomes a chudail in the first place.
Breaking the mould
In June last year, Netflix premiered a film called Bulbbul. Produced by actor Anushka Sharma, the supernatural thriller narrates the story of the eponymous character and how she transforms from a naive young girl to what many think of as a chudail. Deconstructing the popular legend of the witch, the movie humanised her, reasoning why she became one. In doing so, Bulbbul became one of the few movies to give a voice to the ‘demoness’, presenting the story from her perspective.
The female ghost, long painted by popular culture as a dangerous demoness with long hair, scary face, bulging eyes and twisted feet (the most iconic feature), was given a story of her own. In the film, the protagonist Bulbbul is married as a child to a man much older than her. Her husband Indranil physically abuses her so much so that her feet get broken, her brother-in-law rapes her and her youngest brother-in-law, whom she loves, abandons her. Till one day, Bulbbul transforms herself. For some, she becomes a chudail who wants to avenge herself, for others, a devi, or a protector, for other voiceless women like her. As the village doctor, Sudip, who used to regularly visit to check her feet and the only character who knows her truth, remarks, “Rakshas nahi hai woh, devi hai”.
Anvita Dutt, who wrote the screenplay and directed the dark fairytale, shares, “I just told a story with a theme that moves me. Fantasy is my genre of choice even when I read. And I have read great stories from Ursula K Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Jorge Luis Borges, Susanna Clarke, etc, who were all changing the world one word at a time much before me and way better than me.” Dutt has in the past been associated with films like Phillauri (2017) and Pari (2018), which also tell stories of female ghosts. Both were produced by Sharma.
Author Kavitha Mandana, who has written several books like Tenali Raman, Akbar, The Mighty Emperor, etc, compares Bulbbul to the female version of Robinhood who sets out to straighten the wrongdoings of patriarchy. “Such characters in films will be very appealing to girls who need a superhero figure on celluloid,” says Mandana, whose book Trapped (2016) tells the story of a ghost called Amit, a stillborn child who is genderless as it never grew up.
But the earliest trendsetter could well be legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray whom we can thank for setting the standards rather high when it comes to depicting women. In Bengali films and literature, in fact, the portrayal of women is far more evolved and ahead of time. The 1960 film Devi, written and directed by Ray and starring Sharmila Tagore, for instance, explored the story of the fictional character Doyamoyee, a woman thought to be an avatar of goddess Kali and thus denied the right to live a normal life. The blind faith in her crumbles when her nephew dies, as the family refuses to see a doctor, believing that Doyamoyee would cure him with her powers.
Kolkata-based Indrani Chakrabarti, creative director at Screenshots (EmVeeBee Media Pvt Ltd) (a production house creating content for various platforms), and creator of Chhupe Saaye, a horror show on Audible Suno, says, “In Bengali works, ghosts are far more evolved, and horror and suspense remain the most popularly consumed kinds of work… One of the best examples of ghost stories are by our very own Satyajit Ray who was one of the finest storytellers in this genre. Today, there is a transformation happening in Bollywood… Even if there is a witch, she is not all devilish, but powerful and has a purpose.”
Not just the Indian film industry, Hollywood, too, has been exploring the concept for quite some time now. In 2014, the Angelina Jolie-starrer Maleficent revisited the fairytale world to bring out the story of one of the most dreaded characters in children’s literature: the evil fairy from Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The movie narrated the story from her perspective and gave a glimpse into her life—why she turned evil, how she was wronged at the hands of men, especially her lover Stefan who severed her wings in order to marry King Henry’s daughter. When he has a daughter named Aurora with the king’s daughter, Maleficent wants to avenge herself and, hence, curses her. The plot, however, refrains from painting her as an all-evil character instead showing her with shades of grey. Maleficent eventually grows fond of Aurora and acts as her protector. In the movie, Aurora does not wake up from the prince’s kiss, but with the kiss of Maleficent who begins to love her.
Interestingly, the change in mindset isn’t restricted to the film world alone, as many female authors, too, are increasingly opting to give a voice to the female ghosts in their books and refraining from stereotyping them. Nalini Ramachandran, author and editor of children’s books and graphic novels, says that the female ghost character from her short story Shakti in Scary Tales, a horror anthology published in 2016 by Scholastic India for young adults, had traits which today’s youth could easily relate to—dealing with fragile friendships, trying to fit in and the underlying loneliness. “I consciously stayed away from the old witch or the seductress frameworks,” she says.
The invisible female
The writing of history is largely male-centric whereby women are usually made invisible or portrayed as trivial, feels writer and historian Devika Rangachari, who has authored books like Queen of Ice (2014) and Queen of Earth (2020). “Powerful women who subvert feminine stereotypes by virtue of their knowledge, intelligence, curiosity, skills or other abilities have always been demonised in the Indian (and world) context all through history,” she says, adding, “Witch hunts, for instance, were targeted at women who transgressed the patriarchal mould in one way or the other. The fear they evoked manifested itself in violence towards them. I would imagine the ‘chudail’, the ‘possessed’ are more examples of the same—and one does not necessarily need to be a female writer to recognise this. Didda (the lead character from Queen of Ice and the 10th-century queen of Kashmir) and other remarkable women in the Indian past have also been demonised in different ways in historical narratives,” she says.
Filmmaker Dutt agrees, saying that, unlike history and most of the epics, which were written by men, women were the original storytellers for ghost stories. “Biology has nothing to do with intellect. Be it Margaret Atwood, Jo Walton, Daphne du Maurier, Sarah Perry, Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, there are women writers who are heard and will continue to be heard,” she says.
Women understand fear better because they live with it, be it walking alone on a dark street or a stranger walking upto them in an unknown place, Prerna Gill, editor at HarperCollins India and author of The Female Supernatural Being in Contemporary Gothic Literature and Film (2014), was quoted as saying in an interview with The Times of India in July last year.
Ramachandran, too, believes that to a large extent horror is a sub-genre of crime, especially crimes against women. “The female ghost has almost always stood for a cause—be it in Maa (1991), Om Shanti Om (2007) or the Tamil film Eeram (2009). Through Stree and Bulbbul, the female ghost has shown that she has become stronger over time,” she adds.
One of the most common features of female horror fiction is that it often shows a naive girl who suffers at the hands of a male and then transforms into a powerful character. The suppressed-turned-protector theme was explored in both Bulbbul and Stree, bringing into play the goddess-demoness binary. In Stree, in fact, men were shown bowing to the statue of Stree and praying for protection at the end of the film. But there lies an inherent problem in raising women to the position of a goddess or reducing them to that of a demoness. The binary is easily used to cover the conversation around mental health. Take, for instance, the several temples and religious institutions in the country, where so-called ‘possessed’ women are abandoned to ward off evil spirits when actually it could be a psychological or mental illness.
In the West, in fact, the horror genre has been extensively used since decades to study suppression and its impact on mental health. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Gaslight, for instance, explores how a young woman is gaslighted into believing she is going insane by her husband. Similarly, The Yellow Wallpaper, a 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and one of the most important works of feminist literature, explores how a woman is denied the right to write and is made to believe she is sick by confining her to a room where she starts imagining things. The story ends with a horrific scene where madness completely takes over her and she is seen crawling like a ghost on her husband.
However, even in the west, be it The Exorcist series or The Conjuring, exorcism in horror movies is almost always performed on women, strengthening the narrative that women can be easily possessed.
Ramachandran, who has finished working on a children’s book titled Nava Durga: The Nine Forms of the Goddess, says that along with the illustrator and the publisher Puffin, she has strived to break the stereotypes associated with the representation of the warrior-goddess with the book. The author believes women writers think differently while portraying women, be it goddesses or ghosts. “Common tropes and a myopic lens have always been used to present them. Women have been viewed as a gender that is or can be easily possessed. In many cultural or ritualistic practices, goddess worship and possession of women has shared an unquestioned, symbiotic relationship,” she says, adding, “When the goddess has a message for her people, she often chooses a woman as her medium. Several female ghost characters have been made to imbibe this quality. In society, some people may see the act of getting possessed as a sign of a woman’s vulnerability or weakness. From a psychological point of view, this depiction is also crucial to the theories that surround women and mental health issues.”
Talking about the inherent dichotomy in society, Chakrabarti says, “We worship women as incarnations of Shakti, power, manifestation of all that is good and the slayer of the most demonic forces, but perceive them as the weaker sex in our culture. There is a huge dichotomy and irony in society. Stories are being written based on the black arts where woman power plays a very vital role, but this power is again harnessed by a male worshipper. Some of the contemporary writers are trying to break away from this tradition and make the woman a more benevolent force. I want to explore more shades of the genre.”
The ‘wronged woman avenges herself’ theme also plays out in the 1958 paranormal romance film Madhumati, which depicted how the woman, who died escaping from her oppressor, comes back to avenge herself and punish her murderer. The 2007 movie Bhool Bhulaiyaa, too, belongs to the same genre. It painted its protagonist Avni as possessed by the spirit of Manjulika whose lover was killed by a cruel king. The film shows a psychiatrist ‘curing’ Avni. Ramachandran says Bhool Bhulaiyaa is problematic because it ends up making a hero out of the psychiatrist, the priest, the husband and the dancer-neighbour, all men who help the possessed woman out of her situation. “Women writers are more likely to view possession as an act that gives agency to female characters, whom the goddess or the female ghost chooses, to fulfill her wishes,” she says.
- Thrill-a-minute: Some popular supernatural & psychological thrillers over the years
- Gaslight (1944)
- Madhumati (1958)
- Psycho (1960)
- The Exorcist (1973)
- Veerana (1988)
- Raaz (2002)
- Jaani Dushman:Ek Anokhi Kahani (2002)
- Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)
- Black Swan (2010)
- Jane Eyre (2011)
- Ek Thi Daayan (2013)
- The Conjuring (2013)
- Stree (2018)
- Pari (2018)
- Bulbbul (2020)
There is a transformation happening in Bollywood… Even if there is a witch, she is not all devilish, but powerful and has a purpose— Indrani Chakrabarti, creative director, Screenshots (EmVeeBee Media Pvt Ltd), Kolkata
Witch hunts were targeted at those who transgressed the patriarchal mould… the chudail, the ‘possessed’ are examples of this… and one does not need to be a female writer to see this— Devika Rangachari, writer & historian
The female ghost has almost always stood for a cause…Through Stree and Bulbbul, the female ghost has shown that she has become stronger over time— Nalini Ramachandran, author & editor