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The haunted women of new Hindi horror cinema

Through its daayans, bhootnis and chudails, Hindi horror film has been exploring ideas of agency, abuse, sexuality and patriarchy

Anushka Sharma in 'Pari'
Anushka Sharma in 'Pari'

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In the recently released Phone Bhoot, a wandering chudail, played by Sheeba Chaddha, is hit by the car of two bumbling ghostbusters and flung aside. The stoned men, unaware of her supernatural state, are puzzled by the sight of her twisted feet and try to rotate them back forwards, even as she yowls in pain and finally flees their assault. In the next scene, a bhootni (Katrina Kaif) possesses one of the men’s bodies and makes him bang his own crotch with a table tennis racket to convince the two smitten men that she is not human. These two female ghosts—an “ugly” woman whose pain causes pitiful laughter, the other an object of impossible desire and herself an agent of pain—capture a spectrum of female spectres that haunt Hindi horror cinema today.

The trajectory of the Hindi horror film genre through the decades has been traced exhaustively by several critics—from the template-setting Mahal (Kamal Amrohi, 1949) to low-budget Ramsay films between the 1970s-90s, to the “new horror” cinema of Ram Gopal Varma and Vikram Bhatt—but much is left to explore of the even more recent boom of horror in the past five years, especially in the sub-genre of the horror comedy. In this crop of new films, we find a distinct turn from the city to the small town, the high-rise building to the haveli, the nuclear couple to “unattached” protagonists. But even more notable are the particular ways in which contemporary horror is deploying women as haunting spirits and supernatural beings to portray changing social perceptions of gender relations.

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This flourishing, new subgenre of the horror comedy can be traced back to Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007). Alluring dancer Manjulika’s ghost fascinates Avni (Vidya Balan), an educated and assertive “modern” woman, who chooses her own partner and disobeys lakshman rekhas. The tale of Manjulika’s tragic fate and vengeful spirit triggers Avni’s subconscious adolescent trauma of abandonment, displacement, and submission to her father’s authority. Beginning to see the world through Manjulika’s gaze, a possessed Avni finds her lover in another man, misrecognises her husband as his tyrannical grandfather, and lapses into spells of deranged ecstasy-cum-fury when she becomes Manjulika—singing, dancing, and speaking her language.

The most dramatic juxtaposition of the male and female gazes in the film is in the Aami je tomaar song sequence, where the camera shifts between a dishevelled woman’s unhinged dancing (furtively watched by three men in wonder and pity) and a beautiful woman’s synchronous dancing with her paramour before a public court—a coherent world that exists only in her imagination. Aditya (Akshay Kumar), her husband’s psychiatrist friend, diagnoses her condition as a psychological disorder that can be cured only by her submission to yet more authoritative male commands—through the combined forces of religious exorcism and hypnotism. The chain of feminist solidarity that connects female desire and rage between the two women is thereby broken through this two-pronged exorcism. Aditya reaches Avni’s subconscious mind, reminds her of her “true” identity, and restores her as a well-adjusted and grateful wife to her husband.

A still from 'Bhoot Police'
A still from 'Bhoot Police'

But 15 years later, the narrative has transformed in very revealing ways, in Anees Bazmee’s hit sequel, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022). Here, Avni’s split consciousness is replaced with the classic moral splitting of womanhood into good and evil twins. The labyrinth of the film’s title comprises multiple pretences throughout: pretence of death, possession, supernatural insight, and above all, the pretence of being a good woman. This idea—that nothing is what it seems, least of all, women—is at the core of the film and the source of much of its misogynistic humour.

This is most starkly visible in the climax, which reveals that for all these years, Manjulika, the jealous, disobedient, dark, desiring, and murderous twin, has been pretending to be Anjulika, her good, modest, obedient, desirable sister (both played by Tabu). Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2’s premise differs from that of Bhool Bhulaiyaa, since here we are dealing not with the fear that a vengeful female spirit may lead an overtly curious woman astray, but with the conviction that female evil is already masquerading as virtuous womanhood. This film does away with the need of male disciplining of unruly female appetites, since female solidarity has been replaced with female competition, resolved between sisters themselves behind closed doors. Woman haunts not to rage against the tyranny of men, but to save the world from her own darker self; she no longer needs to be hypnotised into consenting to her own subjugation, for she is the agent of the exorcism of her own evil self.

This transformation—from a thriller alternating with comedy, which veils its conservativeness with its “rational” resolution, to a full-blown supernatural thriller that derives its comedy from misogynistic slapstick woven around fears of diabolical femininity—has something to do with the range of experimentations in the horror comedy genre following the success of Amar Kaushik’s influential sleeper hit Stree (2018). Stree begins with the small-town legend of a female spirit who preys on men by seducing, stripping and abducting them. An annual festival presents a comic reversal of gendered realities, where men terrified of female assault are afraid to venture out of home alone, especially at night. Fear grips the town as men respond to Stree’s hypnotic call and disappear. Finally, she is identified as the wrathful spirit of a tawaif—a figure whose sexuality is the site of social exploitation and hypocrisy. Much like Manjulika, she had met her tragic end once she chose to assert herself as a sexual agent by choosing her own partner.

Shraddha Kapoor in 'Stree'
Shraddha Kapoor in 'Stree'

It is decided that the town’s saviour, Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), will lure Stree into consummating her interrupted wedding night with him, and kill her. But instead of killing or escaping her, Vicky looks into Stree’s eyes, tries to understand her, and recognises that it is not sexual gratification but love and respect that she seeks. It is the town’s collective projection of anxiety with female sexuality and its resultant hypocrisy in this regard that is revealed to be the cause of its own terror; hence, it is their gaze on her that must be transformed with remorse and compassion.

By the end of the film, Stree is transformed from predator to protector, as the spirit-repelling graffiti “O Stree, kal aana (O Stree, come tomorrow)” gives way to a statue erected in her honour, supplicating: “O Stree, raksha karna (O Stree, protect us)”. In its portrayal of collective moral transformation (instead of individual exorcism) as the resolution of a possession narrative, Stree distinguished itself from its predecessors.

Stree’s spiritual successor, Roohi (2021), directed by Hardik Mehta, shifts the focus to women’s internalisation of the fear of a witch’s possession. In a culture that has normalised the abduction of brides for forced weddings, Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor) is a young woman with low self-worth, possessed by a murderous and much-feared mudiyapairi (witch with twisted feet) in search of a human bridegroom. Woman and witch have contrasting personalities, desires and attractions for men, and struggle for dominance over the same body. Eventually, despite the valiant attempts of well-meaning male allies, the solution to this splitting is found not in exorcism, but acceptance. The woman embraces her inner chudail as empowering and, in a rare instance of sologamy in popular culture, marries and elopes with herself.

A similar empathy runs through Pavan Kirpalani’s Bhoot Police (2021), where rumours of a kichkandi (a female spirit) terrorising the tea estate in a hill station draw two brothers, who are sons of a famous tantrik but fraudulent tantriks themselves. Hoping to reveal it as a hoax or entrap the evil spirit, they end up letting her loose by mistake. To appease her, they must stop pretending to see false ghosts and instead learn to see and feel the pain of real ones. She is revealed to be the ghost of a native woman who was preyed upon by colonising men, then killed, and separated from her daughter.

Both brothers learn to use their instincts together to become a medium for her spirit, literally see her story through her gaze, then help her reunite with her daughter and depart in peace. Once again, man learns to exorcise not the woman, but his own controlling and predatory impulse, by attempting to understand what she seeks, for which not external resources, but his own emotional reserves and instincts come to his aid.

Akshay Kumar in 'Laxmii'
Akshay Kumar in 'Laxmii'

But not all horror comedies challenge or transform the male gaze; sometimes female spirits are summoned to address masculinist anxieties. Raghava Lawrence’s Laxmii (2020) is ostensibly the quest for revenge of a wronged trans woman Laxmii (Sharad Kelkar), whose spirit takes possession of Asif, a man whose masculinity is entwined with his valuing of rationality and scorning of the supernatural. Over the course of the film, Asif must undergo feminisation, accept the paranormal, and become Laxmii’s ally in exacting gruesome revenge.

However, more than compassion and understanding, the film induces derisive laughter and superstitious fear towards the transgender identity, for the sight of the preening, teeth-chattering, ululating trans woman charging at men and dancing in cultic and murderous frenzy further amplifies stigmatising stereotypes. Interestingly, the film ends up presenting transgenderism as fleetingly human and instead, more as a state of supernatural possession, which is yet in need of male rescue. This male saviour is once again played by Akshay Kumar, but unlike Bhool Bhulaiyaa, where the man expels the female spirit from a woman, here he offers his own body to her as an instrument of revenge. Superficially, this seems like a radical transformation, but ultimately, Laxmii’s possession of Asif is more Asif’s masquerading as Laxmii, which ironically serves to re-centre the saviour man in the female possession narrative.

But beyond the horror comedy, there are other horror films that have inverted the haunted-haunting trope of the genre, and which hold special significance in a post-MeToo world. In Prosit Roy’s Pari (2018), Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) is a wild young woman who has grown up under her mother’s close supervision in a forest hut. However, she is no lovable Mowgli, but the devil’s child, who, after losing her mother, finds shelter with Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee)—a shy, kind, and gentle young man who respects her fears and protects her from the mysterious men trying to hunt her down. Slowly, under his guidance, Rukhsana learns the ways of the world with childlike wonder, allowing herself to be tamed into domesticity, and experiencing sexual awakening as she falls in love with Arnab. They both give in to mutual desire, but soon afterwards, Arnab learns of her birth in a satanic cult and recoils in horror.

In turning away from their shared intimacy and heeding the righteous authority of men who write women’s histories, Arnab suppresses his compassion for Rukhsana in favour of the age-old patriarchal mistrust of the “devouring woman”. Even as Rukhsana shackles herself for him (and to him), he betrays her by handing her over to the very men from whom he had earlier protected her; here, the righteousness of male saviours emerges as more monstrous than the devil’s seductions.

By contrast, it is the female solidarity extended by Arnab’s fiancée, Piyali (Ritabhari Chakraborty), who helps Rukhsana deliver her baby, that appeases Rukhsana’s jealous rage and makes her entrust her child to Piyali’s care and retreat to the forest. After a repentant Arnab tracks her down, Rukhsana assures him that their son is “not like her” and thus need not be feared; she resists the urge to attack Arnab and instead swallows her own poison and dies in his arms, turning from monster to fairy in his eyes. Rukhsana’s story is the story of every woman born into a history of inter-generational violence, chained “for her own protection”, transacted between men and abused by them, pushed to the margins of human society, and ultimately to self-inflicted death.

Triptii Dimri in 'Bulbbul'
Triptii Dimri in 'Bulbbul'

The tale of female abuse and repression unfolds differently in Anvitaa Dutt’s Bulbbul (2020). Here, Bulbbul (Triptii Dimri) is a child bride in colonial Bengal, who grows up to be torn between her attraction to her childhood companion-cum-brother-in-law, Satya (Avinash Tiwary), and her loyalty to her much older zamindar husband (Rahul Bose). Even as she reins in her desire for Satya, she cannot quite keep it concealed, for which she is punished by her husband and his twin, by being brutally beaten, raped, and helplessly confined to bed. As Satya explores the world, Bulbull’s feet are broken and deformed to keep her from “straying” and to hold her hostage; soon, however, these very feet turn unhinged with rage and give her supernatural mobility in the pursuit of revenge—for herself, and then for all the girls and women of the village who are wronged by men.

Having seen through the façade of zamindari patriarchy, Bulbbul transforms from the innocent princess to the bloodthirsty demoness of Satya’s cautionary story that used to once scare her in childhood. But whereas for (most) men she is a terrorising raakshas, for women, she is a protective devi. Satya returns to find a much-changed Bulbbul, but unable to comprehend her pain, he instead accuses her of adultery. As in Pari, here too female desire elicits violence, betrayal and death, and Bulbbul eventually dies in a forest fire set off by an unsuspecting Satya, in a culmination of the sacred fire of the wedding rites that had entrapped her years ago. She leaves behind in her wake a guilt-stricken Satya, finally aware of his collusion in the maintenance of feudal patriarchy, and a rupture in the illustrious zamindari prestige that is built on the routine exploitation of women and the pitting of women against each other as victims and competitors. The film’s last scene shows Bulbbul returning as a spectral presence to haunt her husband, against rising ululation—no longer the auspicious sound accompanying wedding rituals, but an ominous warning auguring the arrival of the wrathful goddess, Kali.

Meheli Sen, in her book Haunting Bollywood: Gender, Genre, And The Supernatural In Hindi Commercial Cinema (2017), reads Reema Kagti’s supernatural thriller Talaash (2012) as proof of Hindi cinema’s rejection of the erstwhile “expulsion of the feminine and the supernatural” in favour of “the ethical acceptance of the irrational that enables the reconstitution of the heterosexual couple”. The films discussed above complicate this picture, for the acceptance of the irrational is deployed by contemporary horror films within contrasting moral frameworks, and in several instances, their climaxes are not aimed at the restoration of the heterosexual unit.

Hindi horror film, especially comedies, have invited the audience’s laughter at the collective fear of predatory women and also horror at social practices and traditions that continue to repress female desire and autonomy. They have raised questions of consent, independence and historical oppression, and introduced shifts in our perception of who haunts whom and what needs exorcism. Tragic haunting women are slowly giving way to a growing recognition by men of their culpability and moral responsibility towards addressing gender injustice. Yet other films, in their anxious response to this feminist inclination, are consolidating the gaze that traps women in moral binaries and fuels their psychotic rage. It remains to be seen in the films to come, whether female ghosts are set free from their cycles of victimhood and vengeance, or they continue to be haunted by the spectres of feudal patriarchy.

Rituparna Sengupta researches, teaches, and writes on, literature, cinema, and popular culture. Currently, she is visiting faculty at Ashoka University.

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