Recounting feminist tales in Bollywood through horror

Ghosts and witches portraying the subjugated yet strong women in Hindi cinema


July 22, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Pari, Bulbbul and Stree bring up a new angle to the age old stories of fairies, ghosts and witches

Supernatural and horror stories in Indian cinema are the new genre of feminist stories. Female ghosts aren’t there to just haunt people, but also portray patriarchy, social norms and subjugation of women.

A bejewelled young woman, clad in red and grey, is sitting on the stairs of a huge mansion, fanning herself with a peacock feather. A man, almost her age arrives, sits beside her and mentions the brutal murder of ‘masterji’. He says “Kisi aadmi ne pata nahi kaise itni berehmi se maar diya? (How could a man murder someone so brutally?)” To which the young woman replies, “Aurat bhi toh ho sakti hai! (It could have been a woman as well!)”

This is the premise on which Bulbul rests. Written and directed by Anvita Dutt, produced by Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Sharma, Bulbul tells the story of gut wrenching atrocities faced by a  bride and her subsequent revenge. These atrocities happened in the name of old traditions, societal norms or simply as a part of what women have to go through, growing up in a patriarchal society.

Arnab looks for the meek and innocent woman he rescued from the forest and brought to his flat. She is scared of the television, the refrigerator and even a ringing cell phone. The woman is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, she appears in front of a mirror, decorated in earrings, bangles and necklace made of paper. She smiles at first and then laughs hysterically. Arnab is surprised and terrified simultaneously!

This is one of the most powerful scenes from the 2018 Hindi film, Pari, directed by Prosit Roy. Pari tells the story of a woman, physically abused and running away from a group of vigilantes who hunt for a woman whose mother was believed to be possessed by demons. In the above scene when the woman adorns herself with paper jewellery at Arnab’s house it symbolises the right of a woman to live with the dignity that the vigilantes were trying to snatch away.

People of Chanderi live in constant fear of Stree, the spirit of a woman who kills men at night during festivals. To save themselves they beg Stree to come the next day, by writing“O Stree, kal aana.” on walls all over the village. But Stree doesn’t seem so easy to please. What happens after that and the unravelling of this mystery sets the tone for ‘Stree’. Directed by Amar Kaushik in 2018, this film gained a lot of appreciation for its unique story and unparalleled take on women’s issues in society.

All three movies have two things in common. First, they deal with the genre of supernatural and horror which is supposed to haunt the audience. Second, they deal with a female supernatural or ghost figure, through whom the issues related to women are portrayed and patriarchy is challenged. Pari and Stree did a huge box office collection picking up around INR 404 million and INR 1.8 billion respectively. Bulbul, recently released on Netflix, is also doing well. The success of these three films shows that even while women are still struggling to find their place in Indian society, a feminist film built around a horror story is popular.

“The horror and supernatural genre evoke curiosity. For the storytellers and the makers, horror becomes a compelling tool for narrating a story. There is a lack of quality horror movies in Bollywood and the new films are filling up this vacancy really well. These are amazing films, talking about horror through the lens of women themselves and are loved for what they are! It is a great start!”Anupam Kant Verma, a filmmaker and critic, tells Media India Group.

“Female ghosts have mostly been portrayed as weak, distressed and in need of help from men to break the spell and end their agony. Finally, we see films where these characters are complete in themselves. They come out of their miseries on their own,” says Manish Pandey, a movie buff, from Delhi.

“In older mainstream Hindi movies like Ragini MMS, Haunted, Raaz and Alone, female ghosts are just seductresses and a damsel in distress. They need to be ‘saved’ from something and only a strong and masculine character could save them. They don’t have a voice of their own. They don’t seem to be capable of fighting their own battles and always need a man to be the saviour. Newer movies like Pari and Stree give women a voice and a story where they are in control of what happens to them,” Verma adds.

At the end of the movies like Pari and Bulbul, the audience is often left with the question of what is more terrifying -the supernatural female ghost or the subjugation and inhumane experiences of these women. The strong storytelling makes the central characters of these films haunt people not just inside but even outside the theatre due to widespread and cruel exploitation of women in the country.

“Most often, such movies make us scared of the human society we live in and we end up rooting for and empathizing for the ghosts and witches instead! And that is the power of honest and empathetic storytelling,” says Verma.



  1. Harish says:

    Beautifully written…

  2. mohit says:

    well structured.. beautiful piece

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