March 24, 2017
Swara Bhasker, Sanjai Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Ishteyaq Khan, Mayur More, Vijay Kumar, Nitin Arora, Vishwa Bhanu
“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 Bhasker 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 Bhasker and Bhasker 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 Bhasker’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 Bhasker’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 Bhasker 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 Bhasker 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.
Bhasker’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 slimy 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 forgives 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 nicer still 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 Badrinath ki Dulhania earlier this month, and that heroine says in so many words that his behaviour is all her fault, the Board finds his 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 Bhasker for bringing this wonderful woman to life on screen.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
113 minutes 5 seconds
Poster courtesy: IMDB
I love reading your reviews especially because of the sexism you call out in Indian films... but I have to ask, is it right to blame Kareena Kapoor Khan or any other female actor for a role that they do when the industry isn't even giving them better choices? Even Swara played a character in Raanjhna which was okay to be manhandled by her friend... anushka did the same in Aye dil hai Mushkil... Madhuri Dixit at the peak of her career had to dance to 'Choli ke peeche kya hai...' which literally translates to 'what's behind your blouse...' and don't even get me started on the whole sexist travesty that were ishaqzaade and bahubali... but do these actresses want to do such films or do they have to do it because that's what most of our films consist of? Is it right to call out actresses when we know it's the writers/directors/producers who are failing these talented women... shouldn't the blame for disgusting lines like 'tandoori murgi' fall on the ones who wrote/selected the song rather than just the women who worked on it...
Hi Abhishek, Sorry for the late response. I get where you are coming from although I disagree. In the matter of misogyny in Hindi cinema (in fact all Indian cinema, since you mention Bahubali) I would certainly not suggest an equivalence between actresses who accept such roles and writers/producers/directors who create such roles in a male-centric industry, but I do believe it is important to hold the women too responsible to some extent because: (1) within the constraints the industry places on them, some do avoid such roles (Vidya Balan is a good example) (2) you cannot credit them for seeking out strong roles if you do not hold them at least partly responsible for accepting demeaning roles. Keep in mind that though some of them have spoken of the limited roles that come their way, others have staunchly defended the degrading objectification of women, the normalisation of sexual assault in their films and so on, even going to the extent of deriding those who highlight these issues. Doing similar supporting roles in 5 films like Raanjhanaa would probably get Swara Bhaskar much more money than 1 Anaarkali of Aarah yet she has chosen to do AoA - I respect her for that, but I did also express disappointment about Raanjhanaa and have asked Swara about it, as we all should. I strongly criticised Raanjhanaa, and have persistently asked Sonam Kapoor about it, but boy did I love Neerja and Sonam's courageous decision to do that film! By doing AoA, Swara is making her own road, just as Sonam has done by doing Neerja, just as Priyanka Chopra has done by looking for opportunities abroad and Anushka Sharma has done by turning producer in an industry where women producers are rare. If we praise these women for making these choices against all odds, should we not point out too that some of their choices have furthered the industry's patriarchal attitudes if they have? Should we also not point out that there are women, unlike them, who accept the status quo instead? If every woman, Dalit or black threw up their hands in the face of marginalisation, change would never come. Evolution is led by game changers among the oppressed, not by exceptions among the oppressors - the exceptions among the oppressors are allies, but not leaders of the movement for change. Of course producers, directors, writers and male stars are the villains of this story (and I promise you I slam them all the time through my columns), but to never call out women for their conformist choices is to my mind, insulting to women who stick their necks out and refuse to conform.Delete
I hope this long answer compensates for the delay :) Thank you for loving my reviews :) :)