"Ek baar kisi daayan ke saath so lo… toh phir kisi aur ke saath neend hi nahi aati."
(Once you sleep with a witch… you won't be able to sleep with anyone else.)
-Ek Thi Daayan (2013)
"Agar ek aurat apne suhaag ko bachaane ki zid kare… toh woh ishwar aur shaitaan, dono ke iraade badal sakti hai."
(If a woman is hell-bent on keeping her husband alive, she can change the minds of both God and the Devil.)
"Tumhe paaye bagair usey chain nahi milega."
(She won't rest until she has you.)
-Krishna Cottage (2004)
As the 2007 hit Bhool Bhulaiyaa went on to become a cult classic by combining family-friendly jump scares coupled with its slapstick fillers, it used farcical notions of psychology as deliciously gripping bait to guide an audience uninformed on the subject. And we followed it as naïvely as Avni had her grandmother's ghost stories. Manjhulika became an addition to the 2000s kids' fancy dress options and her hysteria another point of humour for sexist uncles to use as a convenient reference for their wives. After all, what do "parapsychologists" like Akshay Kumar's character do if not ask a jyotish residing in small Rajasthani villages for help with schizophrenic cases?
Raaz, another cult classic, involves the good wife battling the ghost of her adulterer husband's lover. 1920 shows the perfect wife possessed by an evil spirit, only to be rescued by her well-meaning husband. Krishna Cottage renders even the (obviously seductive) murderous spirit endearing by making her the reincarnated equivalent of the crazy ex-girlfriend who just won't leave her crush alone even in another life. The inevitable ending to a shocking number of similar films will be the exorcising of the demon from the good lady or the complete destruction of the former, an end to the socially-deviant she-devil. Indian horror films have unsurprisingly not only represented but actually relied on demonising the female characters for their success with an audience that would readily accept such a story. Not only is it easier for desi ghosts to possess the frail delicate bodies of the "female love interest" but they also make sure to make their appearance overwhelmingly sexual. While the sexual continues to be a near-inseparable part of scary cinema, it is the recurrence of the "daayan" character that is the most interesting.
The term "daayan" with its connotations of witchcraft and black magic, provides for a conveniently women-only box in the monster department for filmmakers to use. This regular insult in the popular imagination lies at the intersection of grotesque male fantasies and the social demonisation of the deviant female. While Ek Thi Daayan focussed on the powerful performances of the actresses playing the roles of the witches, it ultimately handed over a reassuring victory to its male protagonist by allowing him to chop off the braid of the witch-queen. Of course, the long alluring braid of femininity needs to be tamed by a man for good to prevail. One is forced to turn to history and acknowledge that perhaps witch trials did not really end but just changed shapes in the collective psyche.
This is not to argue that recent Indian horror hasn't done its share in redeeming the genre. Stree provides a sort of antithesis to Ek Thi Daayan by locking the men inside their homes and siding with the witch instead. Phillauri, while not horror, makes the ghost a profoundly interesting character, complete with a gore-less backstory. Humorously, it shows the ghost reluctantly tied to an unimpressive human subject without offering much reason to be intrigued by, let alone possess him. Pari and Bulbbul explicitly challenge notions of female hysteria by providing depth and social relevance to their supernatural characters. The witches here are not context-less malicious monsters but products of the disparate conditions surrounding them. They bleed, suffer and spiral. And yet, it is not frail pity but reclamation of power that they inspire.
Yet, the witch hunt has not stopped. Be it sensational "news" channels blaming actresses of black magic because of their ethnicity or mental illness being treated as a curse, the real horror persists. If there is to be a revolution in the space of Indian horror, perhaps films like Bulbbul are what its beginnings look like. Horror, in our context, cannot be mere jump scares and monsters under the bed. If it is to be enduring, it needs to reflect the scarier reality that creates it. It needs to live beyond the screen time of the movie and the bubble of the screen.