With her ghostly turn in the supernatural comedy Phillauri, Anushka Sharma joins the league of popular Indian actresses who have played spirits on the screen. Unlike many many of her predecessors, including Madhubala and Dimple Kapadia, the glittering ghost in the March 24 release appears to be armed with sparkling wit, but true to form, she has a tragic history of love and loss.
Female ghosts are a time-honoured trope in Indian cinema. With desperately sad stories of violence, grief and untimely deaths, female ghosts are the embodiment of the Freudian notion that repressed ideas and entities tend to reappear in bungled forms. Considering that women are routinely suppressed, it makes sense that women with terrible histories return as ghosts and spirits. They are often products of crimes committed by men, ranging from rape and murder to forced confinement. Their deep discontent is inextricably wound up in love and sexuality.
The spirit in Mahal (1949) is rumoured to be of a woman who dies after her lover is killed in a storm. In more recent films like Raaz (2002) and Krishna Cottage (2004), the temperamental ghosts are women who have died after being summarily spurned by men. An exception is the titular ghost in the Tamil horror comedy Mo (2016), a woman who dies before she can fulfill her dream of becoming a mathematics teacher.
The tragic histories of female ghosts also expose how class hierarchy overlaps with male dominance to render women powerless. In Bees Saal Baad (1962), for instance, locals believe that the ghost of a young woman who was driven to suicide after being raped haunts the local marshes, determined to kill the rapist’s progeny.
In Lekin (1990), Reva succumbs to a sandstorm while attempting to escape the clutches of a lustful king. Her ghost has been trying to cross the desert where she died. Reva’s eerily vacant eyes and inability to escape a barren landscape are perfect reflections of the personal devastation experienced by trauma victims. Lekin draws a powerful analogy between a ghost frozen in time and a woman repeatedly victimised by men.
In the deliciously incisive satire Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012), which features a mansion full of spirits, the two female ghosts – 1940s actress Kadalibala and the young, rich Koel – have been unlucky in love and are products of suicide. Compared to the political reasons behind the deaths of the male ghosts, their origins are somewhat stereotypical. But both spirits are unabashedly sexual, witty and powerful. With Kadalibala’s character, Datta makes a jibe at the typical cinematic characterisation of the lonely female ghost who croons melodiously and haunts large homes with single-minded dedication.
Since female ghosts are wronged by skewed gender politics, they are particularly invested in asserting their power over men. Their death absolves them of restrictions, finally equipping them with the potential to extract revenge and assert their dominance. In Madhumati (1958), the ghost of the titular character terrifies and eventually kills the man who punished her lover and caused her to plummet to death. In the Malayalam film Aakasha Ganga (1999), the brutally wronged Ganga’s ghost compels the men of the family who burnt her while she was alive to remain celibate.
Considering that the audience for horror films is presumed to be largely male, the empowered and vengeful woman is an especially frightening figure.
Female ghosts often use all tools available to them, especially their voices, to achieve their ends. Consider the mellifluous woman in Woh Kaun Thi (1964) who periodically bursts into the deliciously haunting melody Naine Barse Rimjhim, spooking and attracting the male protagonist with effortless skill.
In Talaash (2012), Rosie’s voice is as smoothly seductive and self-assured as her stride and she easily transmits her availability to the inspector Surjit, who is interested despite himself.
Female ghosts extend control over other women too, causing a massive transformation through possession. Although the ghosts never relinquish their strength, the women they posses are absolutely powerless, often at the mercy of men around them. The ghost Manjeet in Bhoot (2003) possesses the female protagonist Swati, causing her to kill the man responsible for Manjeet’s death. In the Tamil movie Devi (2016), a naive rural woman transforms into a seductress when she is possessed by the ghost of aspiring actress Ruby, but she is unaware of any change within her.
Female spirits sometimes come to the aid of women in distress. In the Telugu film Premkatha Chitram (2013), the ghost of a raped woman enters Nanditha’s body, but attempts to protect her from male attention by consistently scaring Praveen when he approaches her. Durga’s ghost in the Marathi film Pachhadlela (2004) battles long and hard with villainous male spirits to ensure that her daughter gets married.
Not all female apparitions are self-appointed protectors of womankind. In the resolutely unfunny horror-comedy Great Grand Masti (2016), the virginal female spirit tries to seduce the three married male protagonists, forcing them to commit acts that will enrage their wives. The men are eventually convinced that the nymphomaniac ghost will not harm them because their wives have fasted for their husbands’ longevity.
The monstrous spirit who pits herself against a virtuous female confirms the old assumption that women are most cruel to their own kind.
Despite their tremendous power to terrify and torture adversaries, female ghosts often illogically require male intervention before they can consider going towards the proverbial light. For instance, the ghost in the Tamil film Pisaasu (2014) finds absolution only when the male protagonist deduces her killer’s identity. This complicated relationship between ghostly strength and masculine prowess results in extreme characterisations of the female spirit. She is either a beautiful seductress who can trap men with impunity or an ugly apparition designed to strike fear in the heart of the most macho man.
Although female ghosts can be enchantingly empowered, they also conform to classical stereotypes. When they unleash their tremendous potential, they embody the idea that women cannot handle power. These out-of-control ghosts are then tamed or controlled by men. In Aakasha Ganga (1999), the resident ghost is nailed to a tree by men and even battered by them eventually, while Praveen slaps Nanditha when she is possessed in Premchitra Katha (2013).
In Goynar Baksho (2013) Rashmoni’s spirit casually shatters several stereotypes associated with female ghosts. Although the widowed old woman has jealously guarded a box of gold jewelry all her life, Rashmoni’s ghost lets her niece-in-law Somlata mortgage her baubles so that she can get her feckless husband Chandan to start a business. The refreshingly bawdy ghost consistently empowers Somlata, exhorting her to break well-established social rules, even prompting her to take a lover when Chandan neglects her. Unlike most cinematic female ghosts, Rashmoni not only dies naturally, but also gives up her ghostly form voluntarily when she feels that her work is done.