Saturday, March 25, 2017

REVIEW 479: ANAARKALI OF AARAH


Release date:
March 24, 2017
Director:
Avinash Das
Cast:


Language:
Swara Bhaskar, Sanjai Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Ishteyaq Khan, Mayur More, Vijay Kumar, Nitin Arora, Vishwa Bhanu
Hindi


“In future, whether a woman is your wife, a prostitute or one step above a prostitute, ask what she wants before you touch her.”

There is such deep satisfaction to be had from hearing a character on the big screen utter this sentence. That it comes from the heroine – not the hero – of the film in question, is cause to pop open a zillion champagne bottles. It is a moment of triumph, not just in this week’s Hindi film release, Anaarkali of Aarah, but in Bollywood history. 

In 1993, the lawyer Govind (Sunny Deol) roared out the well-remembered “tareekh pe tareekh” speech against the victimisation of a woman who was an eyewitness to a rape, in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini. In 2016, Amitabh Bachchan’s lawyer Deepak Sehgal snarled out the words “no means no” in a courtroom in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. Both are significant films, no doubt, but 2017 is now witnessing a much-needed evolution beyond them. In Anaarkali of Aarah, a woman – not a man – storms into the lion’s den and skewers him with her wits and fury, as she reminds him about the meaning of consent. A woman, not a man – hold on to that.

Anaarkali, the firebrand who ticks off a male sexual predator in this fashion, is the protagonist of a film that works not just because of its sound gender politics though. It works because its feminism is embedded in a gloriously entertaining, skillfully told story with the best musical score and most intelligent choreography of the year so far. Even when it defies believability to snatch victory out of defeat for a beleaguered woman, Anaarkali of Aarah does so with such conviction, that it is impossible not to cheer despite knowing at some level that the real Anaarkalis of the world are hardly likely to get off as lightly.

Swara Bhaskar plays the central character of the tale, a stage performer in Bihar’s Aarah town who is passionate about her song and dance. When a local bigwig molests her in public one day, not surprisingly the entire system closes ranks to protect him.

Anaarkali is not one to be taken lightly though. She is the sort of person some might consider foolhardy and others would call brave. She fights the man who preys on her along with his protectors and social opprobrium to have her say and live life on her own terms.

Writer-director Avinash Das makes his debut with a film that can only come from genuine belief. His writing is as assured as his direction. He obviously knows Bihar and small-town India, which accounts for the fact that Anaarkali of Aarah at no point exoticises its setting or its characters. Most important though, he appears to know women like Anaarkali well.

The tone of Anaarkali of Aarah’s narrative is unfaltering as is the look and sound of the film. Anaarkali sings erotic numbers often steeped in double entendre, as she would in the real world, yet the lyrics by Ramkumar Singh, Dr Sagar, Ravindra Randhawa and Das himself take dual meanings to a different level by supplementing their sexual content with the woman’s rebellion, resilience and lamentations. In Lehnga jhaanke she sings of the spellbinding effect her skirt has on men, in Mora piya matlab ka yaar she speaks of the deception by those very men, and in Sa ra ra ra she dares them to touch her without permission.

Hamra ke confusiya ke gaya / Khidki se Patna dikha ke gaya / Hamra th chaukhat ke bhitri zulam hai / Saiyyaan ghoomakkad ko dharti bhi kam hai / Dekho suit boot zulmi taiyyaar / Mora piya matlab ka yaar,” she sings in this telling number written by Dr Sagar.

If Das is the captain of the ship, music director Rohit Sharma is his first officer. Not only are the earthy, folksy tunes and lyrics compelling, but the voices too have been chosen as if by a casting director. It is as if Swati Sharma, Indu Sonali, Pawni Pandey and Rekha Bhardwaj were all born to sing for Bhaskar and Bhaskar alone.

In fact, Anaarkali of Aarah is remarkable in the Hindi film musical universe in the sense that at no point does it seem like anyone but the actress herself is singing.

Swara Bhaskar’s smoothly textured voice is one of her defining characteristics. With no obvious effort to sound gravelly or loud, she seems to have modified it to match her playback singers.

We already know Bhaskar’s innate talent from Tanu Weds Manu (TWM), TWM Returns, Raanjhanaa and last year’s Nil Battey Sannata, but Anaarkali of Aarah is a big step up in her journey as an artist. She so completely inhabits this character, that there is no Ms Bhaskar to be seen in the by turns raunchy, feisty, angry, scared, hurt and irrepressible Anaarkali.

Adding to her understanding of the character is the delightful work of the film’s costume designer Rupa Chourasia and choreographer Shabina Khan. Anaarkali’s dance moves in Sa ra ra ra and her complete immersion in that song gave me goosebumps.

Anaarkali of Aarah is a good lesson for those who seem confused by the ongoing debate on the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. Anaarkali is objectified by the male characters in the film, but never by director of photography Arvind Kannabiran’s camera. Her character is demeaned by several men in her life, but never by Das, the man who has written the story of this film. She sings of the reality of women who are subjected to a sleazy male gaze, but Bhaskar at no point submits to being degraded herself as a woman, as Kareena Kapoor Khan did when she danced to “Main toh tandoori murgi hoon yaar, gatka le saiyyaan alcohol se” in Dabangg 2.

Bhaskar’s choices in this film, her performance and the manner in which Das has conceptualised and fleshed out Anaarkali all add up to a unique moment in Hindi cinema.

Anaarkali… features other interesting characters too. Rangeela, the man who runs the ‘music company’ of which the heroine is a member, is played with admirable control by Pankaj Tripathi. His gestures and body language in several places might conventionally be considered effeminate, yet Tripathi never reduces Rangeela to a camp caricature.

Sanjai Mishra as the film’s antagonist delivers a performance of great depth here. He makes university vice-chancellor Dharmender Chauhan a sleazy fellow without resorting to easy gimmickry and over-the-top acting that usually defines the Hindi film villain even today. Watch out for that moment when the camera rests on his face in the climax.

If I have a grouse against Anaarkali of Aarah, it is that Rangeela is not better explored by the script. His relationship with Anaarkali is obviously complex, which is why she forgive him his aggression, unlike Dharmender Chauhan. Something is missing in the portrayal of that equation.

Another character who should have been better explored is Anaarkali’s young ally Anwar played by the loveable Mayur More. Anwar is cute, his unflinching support is endearing, and it is nice to see that this relationship does not take a predictable course (nothing in the film does). It would have been nice though to discover more of Anwar through the script.

(Spoiler alert) There is a scene in the film in which a man walks seemingly menacingly towards a cowering Anaarkali in a closed room. He turns out to be a well-wisher, and that flash of intimidation appears to have been designed to throw us off. Brief though it is, it sticks out because it is the only point at which the script momentarily takes its theme lightly to manipulate the audience. (Spoiler alert ends)

The best written supporting character in Anaarkali of Aarah is another of the heroine’s allies, Hiraman played sweetly by Ishteyaq Khan with control that rivals Tripathi’s.

Among other things, Avinash Das appears to be having fun with names here – Anaarkali, Hiraman, Bulbul... Will this Anaarkali, for instance, be buried alive by patriarchy or banished to another kingdom, like her legendary forebear? My favourite of the lot is the corrupt cop Bulbul Pandey, as different from Salman Khan’s Chulbul Pandey in Dabangg as chalk is from cheese.

All this is the background from which emerges that one line from the heroine, translated at the start of this review: “Randi ho, randi se thhoda kam ho ya biwi ho, aainda marzi poochh kar haath lagaaiyega.” It may read like a conventional Hindi film dialogue of the sort that tends to attract cheers and wolf whistles from the masses, but be assured that it is discomfiting to status quoists. For proof, look no further than the Censor Board’s A rating for Anaarkali of Aarah.

When a ‘hero’ is violent with a heroine, as Badrinath was in Badrinathki Dulhania earlier this month, and that heroine says in so many words that his behaviour is all her fault, the Board finds Badri’s violence worthy of a UA rating (meaning: fit for consumption by children if their parents consider it so). But when a woman on the margins of society fights back, she is deemed suitable only for adults. Pahlaj Nihalani and his ilk apparently do not want our “Bhartiya sanskriti” and impressionable children to be influenced by “uss type ki aurat” (that kind of woman).

Bless you Avinash Das for celebrating in a most entertaining fashion, every gutsy, rebellious, non-malleable, non-compliant uss type ki aurat through your Anaarkali. And bless you Swara Bhaskar for bringing this wonderful woman to life on screen.

Rating (out of five stars): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
113 minutes 5 seconds 


Poster courtesy: IMDB

REVIEW 478: PHILLAURI


Release date:
March 24, 2017
Director:
Anshai Lal
Cast:

Language:
Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, Suraj Sharma, Mehreen Pirzada
Hindi with Punjabi



Early in Phillauri, an alcohol-swilling old woman with obviously dyed, jet black hair tells her grayhead of a son that he was the result of a single peg of booze. It is a funny remark, of course, yet one you might shrug off if you think of the number of Hindi films in recent years that have seen alcohol, cigarettes, swear words and sex talk from women as the sole harbingers of progressiveness, and the number of filmmakers who have used these props to mask their deeply entrenched patriarchal notions of womanhood while pretending to be forward-thinking.

Over an hour later though, a character in the film tells a woman that a man is worthy of her, not because of his social status, but because he treated her with genuine respect and honour. It is then you know for sure that Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is not merely faking it. The director along with writer Anvita Dutt have struck at the heart of what true equality means. And what a relief that is.

Phillauri belongs to the love-aaj-and-kal genre, with the story of Kanan and Anu in 2017 told parallel to the pre-Independence tale of Shashi and Roop. Kanan (Suraj Sharma) has just completed his studies in Canada and is now in Punjab to marry his childhood sweetheart Anu (debutant Mehreen Pirzada). Much against his wishes he fulfills the family elders’ wishes by marrying a tree to overcome his manglik dosh. Since the ghost of Shashi (Anushka Sharma) from a bygone era resides in that tree, Kanan ends up unknowingly becoming her groom.

The pretty spook is now stuck with him. His commitment phobia combined with the fact that only he can see Shashi ends up creating confusion in his relationship with Anu as D-day inches towards them.

Is Shashi real or is she a figment of Kanan’s weed-addled imagination? Who knows. What we do know is that while Shashi’s sepia-toned affair with the popular local singer Roop (Diljit Dosanjh) unfolds in Punjab’s Phillaur town, Kanan clears up his muddled head and figures out precisely what he wants from life. 

On the face of it, the apparition in Phillauri is a tool to take a comparative look at romance then and now. Yet, with its gentle allusions to India’s colonial history, social attitudes towards artists and women’s autonomy, the film becomes more than just that. It is, of course, a bemused swipe at regressive customs and those who follow them without conviction or understanding. It is a comment on how even now, gifted women are often fronted by men with half their talent because ambition is deemed a dirty word for women.

Most of all though, it is a reminder that the human lives lost in any tragedy are not mere statistics, but real people who died with goals yet unattained and dreams yet unfulfilled.

All this takes a while to sink in though because Lal takes too long to get to the point. Too many Hindi films are lost to the curse of the second half. Fortunately for Phillauri, its affliction is the exact opposite. The pre-interval portion is too stretched out and, after the initial engaging, humorous few minutes, becomes as pale as Shashi’s ghostly presence.

More time than required is spent with Kanan and Shashi together. Suraj has just one expression on his face throughout this segment and Anushka is a shadow of her usually charismatic self. Besides, their equation is far less interesting than Kanan-Anu and Shashi-Roop.

Of the two couples, the old-world pair has way more substance and novelty value than the two youngsters from the 21st century. It is no wonder then that Phillauri truly comes into its own post interval when it devotes itself primarily to Shashi and Roop’s romance which is at once uplifting and heart-wrenching, thus rendering even the needlessly elongated climax forgivable. The resonance and relevance of their story in modern times is this film’s selling point.

The other USP of Phillauri is its music and the way it is used to recount a large part of Shashi and Roop’s love saga. Music director Shashwat Sachdev and lyricist Anvita Dutt deserve kudos in particular for the beautiful song Sahiba – a reference to the legend of Mirza and Sahibaan which serves as a red herring of sorts here – in Romy and Pawni Pandey’s lovely voices. Lal deserves a big salaam for how this number has been woven into the narrative to such soul-stirring effect. 

As with Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal in 2009, the past has more appeal in this film too. One reason of course is the eternal poignance of what-might-have-beens and the challenge of that inevitable question: how might I have functioned or even survived in a regressive, claustrophobic era gone by? That alone does not explain Phillauri’s split personality though.

In terms of writing, directorial execution and acting, yesterday has zest and today does not in this inconsistent albeit sweet spook story.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
137 minutes 58 seconds

This review has also been published on Firstpost: