The Exploration of Gender through Horror
Most films, even when they do not intend it, are a mirror to the society they are conceived in. Movie-goers think of cinema as an escape but truth percolates through celluloid even in the most fantastical of cinema. Indian movies, much like Indian people, are full of song and dance, colour and chaos. We are obsessed with the supernatural and the mystic, and so are our movies. We are people with a tenuous grip on reality. So it is no surprise that we turn to the paranormal to make sense of the world around us.
Over the past few years, the Hindi film industry has seen a steady stream of very different kinds of horror movies. Three movies that have been released in the past few years stand out in particular, all three ostensibly marketed as traditional horror movies but the ghosts they invite us to look at are not quite imaginary. Stree (2018) is a mainstream potboiler, replete with dance numbers and comedic side characters. It is set in a village in North India that is plagued by a female spirit who abducts any man who sets eyes on her. Death in the Gunj (2016) is a more muted, slow-burn movie about a sensitive young man mourning the loss of his father and struggling to fit in with the ideals of masculinity thrust upon him. Bulbbul (2020) is an atmospheric and affecting period drama about a child bride married off to a powerful adult man. While these films are tonally very different, all three of them use the clichés of horror and gore to explore complex themes of gender and sexuality.
Stree is unabashed and obvious in its angry feminism. In the town of Chanderi, during the annual pooja, men are advised not to go outside alone at night because the wrathful ghost of a scorned woman is out to get them. They are told it is “for their own safety” – an interesting turn of phrase that women will recognise as the motto of everyday misogyny shoddily disguised as concern. The men take to dressing in sarees and travelling in groups, looking to their wives and sisters for protection. The town undergoes a transformation during the pooja, a parallel universe where the women get to decide how safe a man feels, instead of the usual reverse. The spectre of Stree haunts the town and the men are petrified of her, for what is scarier than an angry woman taking revenge for centuries of abuse and humiliation?
Actor-director Konkana Sen Sharma’s Death in the Gunj is a tad more subtle but the point is always clear. It leaves no doubt as to who the real demons are. The spectre of toxic masculinity is a haunting presence in every frame of the movie - be it the kind and gentle Shutu being bullied and humiliated for not being masculine enough or the driving lesson that is tinged with the violence that is passed on from father to son. The men are loud and brash and “modern”, but modernity does not stand for much when it comes to traditional gender roles. “Boys will be boys”, shrugs their mother when a friendly kabaddi match gets dangerously bloody. We have all the ingredients of a traditional horror movie – a remote set-up, an eerie jungle, and a foggy cemetery. But hidden under it all is a scathing attack on the patriarchy. There is nothing more horrifying, the movie seems to say, than the evil that lurks right within our homes.
Finally, Bulbbul tells the story of a young girl who is given away in marriage to a rich and influential man. We see her at two very different stages in her life – the young chirpy child with a love for ghost stories who then becomes the mature, aloof, and inscrutable woman, quietly powerful in her femininity. Years of abuse, ill-treatment and trauma have chipped away everything whimsical and innocent about young Bulbbul, leaving only a hard centre of almost inhuman strength. Here we have something more awe-inspiring than ghosts and demons - a woman so broken that there is nothing left to break.
These movies have a kind of inverse-normalisation effect; they take what is accepted as normal in our society and demonise it, throwing into sharp relief the minor acts of oppression and bigotry that the civil society stands on. To question this system would be to question power itself. Fighting it is, in fact, akin to fighting the paranormal; it will stop at nothing to preserve itself.
Throughout history, everything society is scared of has been projected onto the supernatural. Free-minded women were burnt at the stake, the moon was seen as evil, and menstruation was considered impure. The fear of the unknown has long guided our belief system, governing what we choose to call right and wrong. Stree, Death in the Gunj and Bulbbul flip this projection on its head. We see all that is scary in real life being explored through the supernatural. The unknown is certainly terrifying but it is the known, the every day, and the commonplace that is truly spine-chilling. It is what we have accepted and continue to accept every day. The phantom lurking in the shadows is the seething and repressed fury of the women who live among us, invisible and taken for granted; the dormant power in their untapped potential that will eventually transform the fragile dynamics of our social structure.