Such a good movie! I keep waiting for it to become a cult classic, for more people to discover it, but so far it seems to still be forgotten by the world. But I will try to help by making it my Mother’s Day pick!
The tagline for this film was “not a fairytale”. But turns out, it is! Or at least, it is more a fairy tale than it is a horror movie. There are jump scares and special effects, but there are also mysterious forests and old witches and a “prince” who rescues a “princess” and all the other parts of a fairy tale. Most of all, it is a story with a lesson to it. The kind of story you might tell a child to help them understand the world.
That’s all fairy tales are, stories we tell each other to help understand the world and learn how best to be in it. Don’t trust strangers because they could be witches, wait for your true love to arrive, be smart when confronted with danger, learn from other’s mistakes, and so on and so on. This is a story with a lesson as well. It’s not about random attacks and bloody slasher moments, there is more to it than that.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling it because so much is unexpected. Which is the point, it plays with our expectations and teaches us to look past them, to consider each situation as it arises, each person as we know them through their actions. The trailers promised a different sort of horror movie, and the film delivers, but it delivers nothing else as expected.
Anushka is a big part of why the film is unexpected. Her performance begins simple, the usual flat affect that makes it impossible to see what is happening behind. But then, slowly, the layers unfold and we get to see the person inside, the amazingly pure emotions on her face draw us in.
Equal to Anushka are the 3 other leads, Parambata Chatterjee, Rajat Kapoor, and Ritabhari Chakraborty. The only one I recognized was Rajat Kapoor, bringing some lovely gravitas and experience to his role. But the other two, you may notice, are from the Bengali industry. Parambata I had seen before in Kahaani, but the rest of his career was in Bengali cinema. Ritabhari Chakraborty is from Bengali film, and TV. Which got me thinking about Anushka as a producer along with being an actress.
Like all her films, this one has her as the sole big name. Not in a way that feels like a vanity project, but like pure common sense. One big name is required to open well, so Anushka is cashing in her fame from putting in the time as the Khan’s love interest in the big films to get us to see this small film. But a pattern I find interesting between this one and the last one is that they are also extremely regional. Phillauri had Diljit Dosanjh, a strong Punjab setting complete with beautiful folk songs, historical ties, all sorts of other things. And this film has well-known Bengali actors and a story that is firmly placed within the Bengal setting.
It’s a clever business plan. She can get extremely experienced and talented people from the regional industries, people who are willing to play smaller roles in an ensemble for little money. And she can also target a segment of the audience instead of worrying about bringing in all of them. Phillauri did well in the areas where Punjabi films generally do well. Bengali films don’t have as big an overseas market so it is harder to track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this film does well in the Bengali belt even if it doesn’t anywhere else.
But it also adds something to the story. This feels like a fairy tale partly because it is specific. It doesn’t exist in the already fantastical world of popular Hindi cinema, with the character types we know and the costumes and songs. It exists in a recognizable Calcutta with recognizable places like hospitals and morgues and police stations. The fantastical elements shine all the brighter in contrast with the rest.
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Whole movie in two paragraphs:
Parambrata Chatterjee is meeting Ritabhari Chakraborty, a nurse, to consider an engagement. He is shy and nervous, she is kind, on the way home in the car in the rain he tells his parents that he wants to confirm the engagement. And just as they are talking about it, his father is distracted and hits a woman with the car. They take her to the hospital and the police identify her as the mysterious old woman who collected dogs and lived in the forest. They go to her house and find her dogs, and also Anushka, her daughter, chained up in the shed. Parambrata feels bad and tries to help Anushka as much as he can with the details of the funeral. Meanwhile, the morgue attendent saw a tattoo on Anushka’s mother’s body and called a mysterious wise professor Rajat Kapoor in Bangladesh who is determined to come to India and find her. Anushka gets spooked when she sees him and goes running to Parambrata’s apartment in the city. He lets her stay the night, planning to take her to a women’s shelter the next day. But the shelter is terrifying, so he lets her stay with him and they start to grow close.
In the second half, the mythology begins to be more and more filled in. In the 90s, a cult in Bangladesh kidnapped girls and brought them to be impregnated by a demon, their babies would grow to full size and be born within a month. Rajat tracked down the women and forced them to give birth and then beheaded the babies. One woman escaped, Anushka’s mother. Anushka is half-demon, a “Pari”. She is being watched by the dark women who speak for the demon that was her father. Her purpose is to have children and spread the demon bloodline farther on the earth. Every month her poison rises inside of her until it almost kills her, and she has to drain it by killing something, usually a dog. She can climb up the side of buildings, she is freakishly strong, and (according to Rajat Kapoor) she can’t be trusted. Rajat tracks down Parambrata and tells him all this, but it is too late, Parambrata had sex with Anushka the night before. Parambrata starts to notice that Anushka isn’t quite right, and learns that she is already pregnant and showing, and does his own research. He also loses Ritabhari when she sees him kissing Anushka. Finally, he chains Anushka up, with her willing participation since he will let her stay if she is chained, but then he turns her over to Rajat who plans to torture her until her own poison kills her. Parambrata goes back to his parents’ house and they are worried about him, calling Ritabhari to check on him. He confesses everything to her, and she confesses her own “sin”, she had a serious long term relationship before him, got pregnant, and had to have an abortion at 3 months when her boyfriend abandoned her, and she has never quite gotten over it. Their conversation makes Parambrata realize he has a responsibility, he has to go back for Anushka. He finds the men dead in the apartment, Anushka kills Rajat Kapoor and then goes for Ritabhari. But in a surprise twist, Anushka goes into labor in the middle of the fight and Ritabhari can’t leave her alone. She helps her give birth to a normal healthy baby, and then Anushka leaves the baby with her and goes back to her forest home. Parambrata goes to find her there, and she dies in his arms, letting herself die rather than hurt anyone else, and asking him to take care of their son.
There are two reasons that men make-up the idea of supernaturally powerful women. The first is to excuse the terrible things they do to them, women are dangerous and evil so it is okay. Misogyny, in other words. And the second is to explain the reasons that women, normal women, have more power than they are “supposed” to have, to come up with an excuse for them to be powerful. Male Chauvinism.
This film digs into both concepts. Rajat Kapoor is a misogynist. He enjoys hurting women. We see that in the first flashback, to when he was killing the other Paris the first moment they were born. Perhaps, according to the mythology, the babies needed to be killed. But their mothers were innocent women kidnapped and forced to carry demon children. Rajat did not need to keep them huddled together and scared, did not need to force them to give birth in a bloody bathtub with chained men watching. He uses this mythology as an excuse for his behavior.
But Parambrata is a bit of a male chauvinist. He assumes Anushka is innocent, delicate, perfect. That is the kind of woman he wants, even his fiancee is a bit too strong and scary for him. And as soon as Anushka begins to show something besides perfect innocence and reliance on him, begins to show her own independent desires, he runs away, scared, and leaves her to the misogynists.
The savior for women is, and always will be, other women. Anushka and Ritabhari start as enemies. They both want the sweet understanding loving Parambrata. But ultimately, when Anushka is in distress, Ritabhari goes to her. And Anushka leaves her baby, and her life, for Ritabhari.
(Ritabhari is great casting, a very natural human kind of look to her)
Woven through all of this is pregnancy. The scariest time for a man, and the most dangerous time for a woman. This is that supernatural magical power that women really do have. Only it doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you weaker, more vulnerable in all kinds of ways. Mostly from abuse by men.
Let’s start with the first chronological pregnancy, Anushka’s mother. Her ability to procreate is why she was kidnapped and raped. She was impregnated against her will, and Rajat tried to take her baby against her will too. She took control, ran off with her child. But even that wasn’t totally her choice. That is the “secret” of pregnancy, you have no choice in bonding with the thing growing inside of you. That is why there is such urgency in getting an abortion, so that you can take control of your body before it takes control of you.
And then there’s Ritabhari. She was happy with her pregnancy. Until her boyfriend abandoned her. The abortion was her choice, and she doesn’t say that she regrets it, but it is a pain that is always there. Her boyfriend may have felt trapped by the pregnancy, but she is the one who has to pay the price every day for his fears, his abandonment of her left her with no other choices.
And finally, Anushka. She grew up in the forest, fell in love with the first man who was at all nice to her, had sex with him, and became pregnant. And in return she was abandoned, tortured, and left to die. Which, unfortunately, is not that uncommon a happening for a woman who tells her boyfriend she is pregnant. According to one report, it is the cause of death for 20% of women who die during pregnancy.
And she never should have been pregnant in the first place, she never should have had sex, Parambrata’s sin is not having sex with a demon, but having sex with the human half of Anushka. She was a scared young woman who never experienced the world. He should have rejected her advances, known that she was not capable of fully making that decision, known that there was no good solution to this, known that he was just taking advantage of her vulnerability in order to satisfy his own desires, that he only saw her as a nonthreatening available body in his bed not as a real person.
There is a legend (one of many) about a Pari in which a normal man sees her and falls in love with her and her with him and she takes him away to her palace. Until he misses his other human family and goes back to see his wife and sons. But breaks his promise and tells his human wife about his Pari wife and therefore is barred forever from his Pari wife and life (link here).
(Yes, this is also the legend of Shakuntala. Not surprisingly, stories of married men who get innocent young women pregnant and then go back to their wives are pretty consistent across cultures)
The legend tells this from the man’s perspective. He was so lucky to have a rich beautiful Pari, he was foolish to give in to weakness and go back and visit his human wife and sons, and he became wise too late, abandoning his human family and wandering waiting for his Pari wife to come back.
But, what about the women? The Pari who thought he loved her, thought he was true to the life they had built together, tried to understand his need to see his other family but wanted certain things to be true to their bond. And the human wife who bore his children and put up with him disappearing and just wanted to know where he went. He is faithless to both women, hurting them much more than they hurt him.
That is where this movie ends. With the two women in his life, the human one and the Pari, bonding over being women, the ultimate symbol of being a women, birth. All the foolish anger and fear and violence, that was given to them by men. When it drops away, there is nothing left to fear, there is no danger, there is just love and life. Anushka was never the demon, it was the men who feared her who were the real demons.