No one expected the Hindi remake of the 1993 film Malayalam film Manichitrathazhu to become a cult classic, but Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) ended up being just that. Despite the remake being tweaked to make the film something of a star vehicle for Akshay Kumar, central to Bhool Bhulaiyaa was a visceral performance by Vidya Balan as Avni. It’s one that stands out for its unusually empathetic view of women characters — particularly those of the spectral variety — in horror films.
At one point it is revealed that there is no ghost haunting Avni, but rather Avni’s afflictions are rooted in her empathising with Manjulika, a dancer from a bygone era who was unfairly treated by a king from that time. Unexpectedly, Bhool Bhulaiyaa becomes a story about female solidarity, rather than a standard horror film. Avni and Manjulika are brought together by both women’s determination to resist the tyranny of patriarchal tradition and social norms that deny women their sexual agency. Avni’s wild-eyed ‘madness’ makes coherent sense when seen through the lens of Manjulika’s experiences and her desire for vengeance. The final revenge is a simulation that allows Avni (and Manjulika) to believe they’re beheading the evil king and it carries the triumphant note of good over evil. Nestled within it is the victory of female agency over dominant male entitlement.
Curiously, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, a surprise hit of 2022, followed a very different arc. Director Anees Bazmee’s climatic revenge plot sees a face-off between two sisters, identical twins Anjulika and Manjulika (both played by an incandescent Tabu). Anju Bhabhi is the beloved bahu (daughter-in-law) of an aristocratic family. From her we learn of her sister Manju, now a fearsome ghost who is locked behind a padlocked door in their family mansion. In flashback, we’re shown their contrasting personalities. The vibrant but demure Anju has praise lavished upon her by their father while a sullen Manju feels neglected. Bazmee uses details to drive home the difference between the two: Anju is often swathed in hues of pleasing golds, her hair is in a neat plait while Manju roams around with her hair open in wild disarray, dressed in greys and blacks. As Manju, Tabu is sexual and smirking. As Anju, she’s open and smiling warmly.
A neglected Manju turns to black magic and the film shows this as part of the vilification of Manju. Instead of using the childhood neglect to add a layer of complexity to the character, Manju is instead depicted as someone who gravitates towards evil. She becomes the chaste Anju’s opposite, setting up a binary that allows for little by way of nuance. So while Anju is dutifully married to Kunwar (Amar Upadhyay) in the present, we’re shown in flashback how Manju tried to seduce him. Around him she was a sly coquette, making books fall out of his hands and leaning to pick them up so that he (and, we) see a hint of her cleavage. Manju’s yearning for Kunwar isn’t simply about a woman’s heedless desire – a deadly concept in itself – but the yearning for a Good Woman’s husband. When she performs black magic against her sister, it is understood that Manju doesn’t simply want to take something that isn’t hers. She’s attacking the idea of domesticity, the load-bearing pillar of the patriarchal family structure. Unsurprisingly, a bad woman makes for an even better ghost.
To his credit, Bazmee uses these loaded cues to dupe the audience. The final reveal – spoiler alert – is that the ghost haunting the mansion had in fact been Anju all along, killed off years ago by Manju, who, driven by a vengeful hunger to have her sister’s life, adopted Anju’s identity. It turns out a horror movie can be sympathetic towards the malevolent ghost — as long as it’s ultimately revealed to be a dutiful woman. Unlike Bhool Bhulaiyaa, which (albeit half-heartedly) saw two victims in its narrative – the ill Avni and the angry Manjulika – and attempted to treat both with some empathy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 has eyes for only Anju, the Good Indian Woman.
Beginning with the horrex films of the Seventies by Ramsay Brothers, Hindi horror has long manifested an anxiety around women’s sexual agency, gradually giving birth to something of a supernatural vamp. Take the femme fatale – a woman who practices her dangerous, sexual powers over unsuspecting men – and place her in the context of horror, and you get a woman who is monstrous for being powerful and overtly sexual, defying the moral damsel who is glorified in orthodox Indian traditions. As we see in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, she threatens the ‘natural’ order of things. Speaking about Indian horror, Shalini Nair wrote in an article for Forbes, “Right from Mahal (1949), the first horror and reincarnation film in India, our tales from the dark have dealt with threats to the family structure.”
Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz (2002), which came to re-shape horror for the new century, is the very expression of this threat. The film begins with the crumbling marriage between Sanjana (Bipasha Basu) and Aditya (Dino Morea), leading to a one-last-shot trip to Ooty. The getaway obviously turns into a nightmare, with a female ghost haunting the couple’s villa. However, this is no ordinary ghost – this is Aditya’s mistress, Malini (Malini Sharma), who seduced the married man with nothing but some bare calves and weird dialogue. In the flashback that reveals their torrid affair and cements Malini’s viciousness, she is shown to be in clear charge of her sexuality, often initiating sexual play. But this healthy sexual confidence soon crosses into displays of neurotic behaviour, as if to say that one is a precursor for the other.
This idea that overt sensuality is somehow dangerous, even deadly, shows up again when Malini’s ghost possesses Sanjana’s body. Disturbingly, the first thing Sanjana does as a vessel is spout extremely horny dialogue (“Aaj ki raat taras ne ki nahi, barasne ki raat hai (tonight is not about thirst, but about getting wet)”) and attempt to have sex with Aditya. Here, Malini and her sexuality become a tool to not only cause active fear, but also make a victim out of Aditya, implying that he was waylaid by her immoral ways and thus earning the audience’s sympathy.
Ultimately, Malini’s exorcism at the end of the film happens at the hands of Sanjana and not Aditya, representing her fight for her family and domestic bliss (never mind how their marriage was on the rocks before Malini entered the scene, and that Aditya is a grade-A jerk). In a paper titled “The Monstrous 'Other' Feminine: Gender, Desire and the 'Look' in the Hindi Horror Genre”, Meraj Mubarki writes, “As a threatening other, … the monstrous other feminine is vanquished in the narrative’s closure and the status quo of normative femininity is preserved.” Much like in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the final exorcism in Raaz is a celebration of tenets essential to patriarchy – the dutiful, self-sacrificing wife; the pitting of women against each other; and the blameless male figure.
Raaz not only reveals the fear of a sexually-forward woman, but also the historical attempt to control feminine desire using fetishization. Malini’s body conveniently becomes both the tool for home wrecking and the object of male fantasy. For instance, when Malini possesses Sanjana, transforming the virtuous wife into a titillating daydream, her outfit changes from chaste and plain to a lacy dress with a thigh-high slit. Similarly, Ramsay Brothers’s Veerana (1988) shows a “naapaak jism” (unholy body) entering a young woman, granting her the duality of both a monstrosity decked in prosthetics when required and a voluptuous woman who can be ogled while she bathes. This gaze isn’t limited to husband-stealing spirits. Even the more sympathetic versions of a supernatural woman, like the naagin (female snake) who seeks righteous revenge for her naag’s (snake husband) death in Nagin (1976) helpfully prances around in skimpy clothing. For all the power the genre seems to grant its supernatural women, Hindi horror has also maintained a counterbalance by remaining loyal to the male gaze.
Even the horror films that allow their supernatural women power through real scares – Bhoot (2003), Bhool Bhulaiyaa, 1920 (2008) and many more – almost always anchor their power in the terrible violence they went through in their human form, usually perpetrated by powerful men. Broken and enraged, when these women resort to brutality after death, it invariably traps them in the binaries of a victim and a beast. The violence that these supernatural women inflict upon their male perpetrators can be interpreted as the anxiety of the powerful, a fear that the oppressed will behave like the oppressor if the tables are ever turned.
It’s only in the last decade that we’ve seen a slow but seismic shift in the treatment of Hindi cinema’s ghostly women. Amar Kaushik’s Stree (2018) stands out for a reason – not only did it bring out a sublime union of horror and comedy, the film also managed to pack some hefty commentary on sexism. Take how it puts a spin on the trope of sexualising female spirits. At first, it seems the film’s antagonist is a female ghost who lures men away from their homes and makes them disappear. Vicky (Rajkummar Rao) and his friends are told the ghost, Stree, was once a beautiful woman whose true love was snatched away from her by the men who desired only her body. They correctly guess she must be looking for what she once lost, but come to the conclusion that she’s seeking sex, and not love. Vicky is hilariously prepped to consummate the unfinished marriage that haunts Stree, but upon confronting her, he learns she only wants respect. She wants what was taken from her when she wasn’t allowed to pick the man of her choice. “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,” wrote Rituparna Sengupta in Mint Lounge.
Similarly, in Pari (2018), produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, we’re introduced to Rukhsana (Sharma), a demon born out of a satanic practice. When she is rescued from her forest hut by the gentle Arnab (Parambratta Chatterjee), we fear for him. We doubt her child-like wonder at the world, her sweet descent into love with Arnab and her motivations towards the ‘good’ woman in this narrative, Arnab’s partner, Piyali. When Arnab realises the extent of Rukhsana’s monstrosity, he joins our gaze of fear, abandoning her to be tortured despite being aware of her pregnancy. Her abandonment leads to rage, setting Rukhsana towards Piyali, the woman she believes Arnab loves. In a stunning climax, we see her attempting to kill Piyali, acting as the monster we always expected her to be, before suddenly going into labour. The scene transforms: The two women, caught in the throes of violence, now find themselves in the midst of a crisis that unites them as women. Piyali, a nurse by profession, treats Rukhsana with dignity and Pari transcends its horror roots, emerging as a layered portrait of female strength, victimhood and solidarity.
One of the most thought-provoking portrayals of a vengeful female ghost was in Anvitaa Dutt’s Bulbbul (2020), which determinedly blurs the line between a ‘good’ woman and a monster. Bulbbul’s tragic past is a catalogue of horrors that includes marriage to a much older man at the age of five, mutilation at his hands and being raped by another family member. Out of this savagery, a new Bulbbul is born — one that draws upon the Bengali folklore of fearsome women ghosts whose feet point in the wrong direction, and gives an inventive spin to the bloodthirsty chudail by making her a predator of abusive men. Bulbbul acknowledges how society and family are integral to the making of a ‘terrible’ woman. Even though this effectively makes her a protector of vulnerable women, the only response she evokes in the village is that of fear. Her fury and vengeance are calculated and logical, but everyone — this includes other women — see Bulbbul as unpredictable and terrifying. Feminine rage and masculine fear are locked in an infinity loop in Dutt’s film, which ends with Bulbbul rising out of the embers of a terrible fire, intent upon exacting her revenge on the man who mutilated her.
Horror occupies a fascinating space in popular culture in the way it articulates everything from anxieties to taboos. As a genre, it takes the chaos of real-life terrors and transforms them through allegories and tropes, making these social issues feel more manageable. Films like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Laxmii (2020) are an indication that it’s going to be a while before offensive binaries recede from supernatural narratives in Hindi entertainment, but more contemporary horror stories point to a more hopeful picture. If the supernatural woman is a monster who holds up a mirror to the deep-rooted fears of an oppressive patriarchy, she’s also evolving into a character who can have fun while seeking revenge.
Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Stree and Bulbbul are streaming on Netflix; Bhool Bhulaiyaa on Disney+Hotstar; Pari on Prime Video; and Raaz and Veerana on YouTube.