Note: spoilers ahead.
Is it pure coincidence that the two latest Indian films released on Netflix tell the stories of female lives in a man’s world? The films are set in completely different worlds – Kapella in contemporary north Kerala and Bulbbul in 20th century Bengal Presidency. But a thread runs through both the films: that of male resolutions to the problem that is female existence.
Kappela got a theatrical release on March 6 but couldn’t continue as cinemas were shut owing to the coronavirus outbreak. The film rereleased on Netflix on June 22. Directed by Muhammad Musthafa, Kappela begins in a village in the high ranges near Kozhikode, where we see an innocent and slightly bored Jesse (Anna Ben). Some unexpected excitement is injected into her dull life when she dials a wrong number one day and ends up connecting with Vishnu (Roshan Matthew). Hearing the voice of a young girl on the line, Vishnu, an auto driver in Kozhikode, pursues Jesse by calling her back incessantly over many days. While she reacts with annoyance initially, she soon softens to his attempts.
As these things go, Jesse and Vishnu are soon in love, but because Jesse does not have a smartphone and Vishnu refuses to be on Facebook they are still in the dark about how the other looks. When a small-time businessman, Benny (Sudhi Koppa), shows interest in marrying Jesse, she is desperate to meet the man she is in love with at least once. Jesse clandestinely boards a bus from her village to meet Vishnu in Kozhikode.
In Kozhikode, a series of unexpected events throws her plans out of loop. Vishnu’s phone is stolen just at the moment they are supposed to meet. The thief is Roy (Sreenath Bhasi), a small-time miscreant who happens to be in Kozhikode for a job interview. In a moment of confusion, Jesse believes Roy to be Vishnu, only to be rescued by Vishnu just in time.
Here comes the plot twist: we learn that it’s Vishnu who has lured Jesse to Kozhikode as part of a sex trafficking plan. Roy, though a jobless troublemaker, is attached to a local group that works to empower girls by training them in self-defence and in recognising predatory men. Roy, a hero now that his aggression is used for a good cause, is able to rescue Jesse and send her safely back to her village, where a lovelorn Benny waits.
Incidentally, Bulbbul, directed by Anvita Dutt, also begins with a moment of mistaken identity. Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) is married to a much older Thakur (Rahul Bose). She is too young to even understand that her husband isn’t the young boy, Satya, she meets at her marital home. Satya (Avinash Tiwary) is actually her husband’s brother. The two grow up in a grand haveli, living the lives of royalty in pre-independence India, playing, laughing, and writing stories together.
Their favourite story, and that of the villagers, is the one about a chudail, a female demon, who lives in the forest, her long dark tresses flowing, her feet turned backwards. She preys on unsuspecting men. As Bulbbul grows into a woman, her relationship with her husband is vague. While he seems affectionate towards her, it is obvious he wields an iron hand over his bride who is young enough to be his daughter. He is unaware of Bulbbul’s romantic feelings for Satya until his sister-in-law (Paoli Dam), whom he also has a sexual relationship with, points it out. Furious at the revelation, Thakur sends Satya, who is oblivious to Bulbbul’s romantic inclinations towards him, to London on the pretext of studying law. Heartbroken, Bulbbul withers in sadness but only for a few days before her husband can no longer bear her pining for Satya, and takes the matters into his own hands, literally.
Bullbul, like Kappela, does not follow a linear narrative. We find out what has actually happened through a series of flashbacks. It is also through these flashbacks that we find out both Jesse and Bulbbul’s powerlessness and desperation, when the men they love slip out of their lives as other men in their lives make all the decisions.
But Bulbbul and Kappela part ways here. While Bulbbul adopts the trope of the supernatural, Kappela, unfortunately, treads a sermonising path, suggesting that it is best for women to live in the familiar comforts of their home where men can protect them from other dangerous men. One can’t help being reminded, uncomfortably, of the justifications that Uttar Pradesh’s infamous anti-Romeo squads make to the same effect.
Kappela paints a black and white picture where good and bad men brawl to protect the sanctity of the women that inhibit their world. In one scene, Jesse’s father hits her sister for having taken a lift from a male schoolmate on his bicycle. Are we being told that good men resort to violence only to protect their women from bad men? Or that if girls and women stayed within their domestic limits, then men would not have to resort to violence?
It is the same physical violence Vishnu and Roy indulge in later in the film as Jesse’s fate hangs in balance. She would be saved or doomed depending on which man wins the brawl.
Violence against women is explored more realistically in Bulbbul, where the camera does not turn its gaze away from the physical and mental anguish of abuse. It can’t be a cinematic coincidence that her husband, and his twin brother, are the ones who abuse Bulbbul, both forgetting that she is a human being, not a raggedy doll. The two characters are both played by Rahul Bose, a stark reminder that there is very little difference between one male abuser and another; one act of toxic masculinity and another.
There are other men in her life, though, who show Bulbbul affection. When he does return from London after five years, Satya is drawn to her more than before, more so perhaps because his brother has abandoned her. Pining for Bulbbul is also Dr Sudip (Parambrata Chatterjee), the doctor who nurses her back to health.
What can be more attractive than the opportunity to save a damsel in distress? But Bulbbul has other plans. She, unlike Jesse, does not need saving. What she does need to set the world that has wronged her right is paranormal intervention.
Indian films have reminded us over and over again that a woman’s anger takes the form of a goddess or a demon, the only female forms that men are afraid of. Can a mere mortal woman even be angry? Even if she is angry, will the men around her allow her to act out her anger? Even if they allow her to act out her anger, shouldn’t she direct her anger only at bad men?
What then is the punishment for good men who allow women to burn from the toxic masculinity they nurture by silently being part of the game?
Neither Kappela nor Bulbbul gives us an answer.
Suffice to say that each woman must decide on her own if she wants to be a goddess, immobile within a kappela, or chapel; a demon, strong but alone; or a mere woman tolerating a man’s world.
She can choose to go back and inhabit the world as a mortal woman; watch from a distance and not act as a devi might; or burn it all down as a chudail would.
The choice is yours.