Women in Indian Horror Films

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Chutni Mahato lived to tell her story – branded as a witch in her in-laws’ village in the Seraikela-Kharsawan district of Jharkhand, stripped and paraded naked and forced to drink urine. Once a woman is called a witch – a superstition prevalent in many states in India – her chances of survival are very low; lynching of women suspected of witchcraft is widespread in many regions. But Mahato managed to escape. It was in 1995. She is now an activist fighting against these social evils. In 2019, Mahato won the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, for helping nearly 150 women, all victims of witch hunts and persecution.

A few years before she was honored, a film supposedly based on her life was released. But Kaala Sach: The Dark Truth turned out to be typical Bollywood horror fare – instead of depicting its empowerment, the film is full of scenes of sexual violence, its dialogue filled with swearing and innuendo. Mahato is unfamiliar with the film, but says they cannot do justice to the struggle faced by women branded as witches and hunted down by a ruthless society. “They (the films) show witches with bulging eyes, backward-turned feet and matted hair. She is looking for men to seduce and children whose blood she can drink,” says Mahato. Outlook by telephone. “In real life, however, ‘witches’ are not demons but women like you and me,” she adds.

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For decades, Hindi horror films have stuck to a tired, sexist and misogynistic characterization of women. Whether as a “ghost” or a living character, the women simply pandered to the voyeuristic desires of the male audience. And one of the most common and often misrepresented subgenres in the horror universe in India has been the daayan film and the rape-revenge genre where a pious or pure woman becomes impure because of the wrongs done to her. were made by men and turns into an all-powerful, bloodthirsty demon. Popular movies like chudail (1991), Khoon Ki Pyaasi, (1996) and Khoon Ki Pyaasi Daayan (1998) – with their stories of exploitation and their focus on women’s bodies as objects of lust – nevertheless laid the groundwork for later films like Raagini MMS (2011), Ek Thi Dayan (2013), Paris (2018) and Bulbul (2020) which strove to subvert the trope of the witch to portray powerful feminist women and themes of violence against women. While many films followed the “sexploitation” subgenre, some of them, in their own right, paved the way for more layered female characters in horror films.

Another aspect that has emphasized the narrative of women in Indian horror films is the expression of internalized cultural beliefs, mythology and pop culture.

Horror cinephile and author Aditi Sen, however, has an interesting take on Hindi films from the 80s, when the Ramsay brothers’ sex horror movies had achieved cult status. Sen, a history professor at Queen’s University and a researcher on South Asian horror cinema, argues that while the films definitely exploited and objectified women for eyeballs, they also hinted at women with more agency. and independence. “In Purana Mandir (1984), for example, a group of men and women go to an abandoned place for a weekend of casual sex with their partners. It’s unthinkable in a mainstream Hindi movie of the time, for women to have that kind of freedom,” Sen says.

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In 2002, the movie Raaz was one of the biggest hits of the year. Although the film didn’t have the traditional witch, it did develop a different kind of female demon – the lonely woman spirit who is just looking for love. She was a louder, more sexualized reincarnation of the “lonely, loving ghost woman” of the sixties who wore a white sari and sought out men who reminded her of her estranged lover. Sen, who wrote a chapter on the film in the 2020 book Bollywood Horrorssaid Raaz was a turning point. “It reinforced beliefs that women were responsible for ‘fixing’ men and coming to terms with their follies, but also opened up a starting point for other films that showed women not just as props, but as actors of the plot.”

Another aspect, says Sen, that describes the narrative of women in Indian horror films is the expression of the country’s internalized cultural beliefs, mythology and pop culture. In Raazfor example, Bipasha Basu – the woman – is the Devi while the ghost – the other woman – is an aggrieved woman or chudail. The ‘Devi’ can only annihilate the evil spirit by giving it a proper funeral. In later performances of the daayan or chudailthe filmmakers used daayan like a twisted allegory of the divine. “It’s because the filmmakers (and all men) know the power of Shakti and no man can really resist her. None of the films, of course, showed an almost exact depiction of witches, even though in India, witches are as old as the gods,” says Anubhuti Dalal, 42, who lives in Delhi and claims to be a tantric. “I am what is sometimes called a dakini. I belong to the Aghori clan of tantric,” she says. A practitioner of tantraan ancient sect of Hinduism that predates the era of “organized religion”, as Dalal puts it, she and others dakinis like her cult, the Dasha Maha Vidya – a pantheon of 10 female energies, each representing a form of the Supreme Goddess. In ancient texts, the dakini is defined as an “evil” spirit who worships Kali.

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In India, Dalal explains, the reason why women are repeatedly portrayed as horrifying and monstrous entities in the form of a chudail or daayan can be attributed to the fear and patriarchy of the Brahmins. Accepting the power of woman as a divine healer meant accepting the power of her anger. “Regarding the battle between Mahakaal and Mahakali, the Goddess will always win. Brahmins and all men know this. Perhaps that is why they always picked up their pitchforks and torches to behead and burn the ‘witch.’ Because deep down they know they can’t kill the witch just like they can’t kill the goddess,” she says. A lot of recent Bollywood filmmakers seem resumed this trend.

In 2018, Amar Kaushik’s film Street baffled audiences with her feminist take on the witch’s comedy horror. The film told an old folk story about a witch who stalks the streets looking for young men with not-so-subtle subversions in gender roles. The witch in Street, for example, sought the consent of his male victims before seducing them. In 2020, the first horror film by filmmaker Anvita Dutt Bulbul won two Filmfare OTT awards and accolades for telling the story of the vigilante daayan which uses its own brand of justice system to punish those who have hurt it and the drivers of patriarchy. In both films, the witch ultimately becomes a metaphor for power.

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Film writer Amborish Roychowdhury believes that while sexual violence has been a misused trope in Bollywood horror films in the past, it continues to be a popular theme in horror films as it is a living reality for most women. “Horror is one of the most expressive cinematic genres. I think filmmakers today are realizing the potential of the platform to tell powerful stories about women and violence is a big part of the many women’s lives,” he says. “That’s where the filmmakers’ credit and intent lies – do they use it to lure the audience in or do they use it to make the audience feel uncomfortable and ask questions about the society in which they live?”

Far from the world of movies, Aloka Kujur lives in the land of so-called witches. “In Jharkhand, daayanpratha is still a relevant practice and every year hundreds of women are persecuted and even killed in the name of being a witch,” said Kujur, who works for women’s rights under Adivasi Jan Adhikar Manch. Outlook. In Jharkhand, most of these cases are related to property disputes. “Women who have property and who are single or elderly are often the targets of such tactics, often by relatives and neighbors who want to usurp her property.” Kujur, however, says films like Bulbbul that romanticize the daayan are just as bad as B-grade films. She explains that in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, witch stories are much more believable as they are deeply embedded in the social fabric. “These films reinforce the idea of daayan and chudail.”

(This appeared in the print edition as “The Witch’s Tale”)

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