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07 November 2011

Anaahat (2003)

Directed by: Amol Palekar
Starring: Sonali Bendre, Anant Nag, Deepti Naval,
Shrirang Godbole, Pradeep Velankar, Vilas Ujavane
Based on Surendar Verma’s play Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak,  Amol Palekar’s Anaahat is the story of a woman’s right to make her own decisions. The second offering in his trilogy on gender equality and female sexuality (the first is Daayra, the last Thaang), Anaahat is set in 10th century BC and relates the story of the King and Queen of the kingdom of Malla. 

On the face of it, that’s it: a simple story of a man and a woman, who are married, who share a love of music, and the best of friends. Unfortunately, for them, they are also the king and the queen of a kingdom, and their duties must come before their personal lives. And what bigger duty do they have to the kingdom and the people but that they provide their kingdom with an heir?

The film opens with the head priest (Vilas Ujavane), the defence minister (Shrirang Godbole), and the chief minister (Pradeep Velankar) praying to the Gods; the palace is a flurry of activity as maids rush around decking the rooms with flowers; silks and cosmetics are being picked out and discarded, and there is a hushed air of expectation around. 
The king is practicing his music, but his mind is obviously not on his riyaaz. His mental turmoil is quite visible and his guru suggests that they stop for the moment. The king leaves, his agitation taking him outside where the rapid march of time is also striking the death knell of his emotions. His maid, Mahattarika (Deepti Naval) tries to console him – ‘It’s all pre-ordained’, she says, but the king cannot be consoled. 
More trouble is in store for the king - the prime minister, the head priest, and the commander-in-chief of the army need him to formally consent to ‘Niyog’; it is his consent that will sanctify the practice since it must not be seen as the senate’s decision alone.
Mahattarika leaves the king and makes her way to the inner chambers; she is met with the news that the queen has refused to get dressed until she comes. But the chief minister wants to see Mahattarika first. 
When she enters, the senate members are discussing the coming night; while they are sure that what they have suggested is but part of the king’s duty to his kingdom, they are also worried about the king. To that end, the chief minister tells Mahattarika not to let the king remain alone that night.   
With but an hour remaining until she is led to her fate, the queen is showing no interest in either adorning herself, or in the ornaments and rich silks her handmaidens proffer. Her maids are at a loss, when Mahattarika comes in; the latter, however is more understanding.
Queen Sheelavati (Sonali Bendre) is emotionally dead; as she and Mahattarika wait for her maids to bring her clothes, they hear the palace heralds announce the queen’s fate to Shravasti, the capital city of the Malla kingdom - any young man who is desirous of bedding the queen is requested to present himself at the palace before sunset. There is fear in the queen’s eyes, and concern in the maid’s.
As the king pours forth all his pent-up torment in music, the queen is hard put to maintain her composure. She insists on meeting the king before she leaves. Mahattarika demurs; the chief priest… the queen stops her. Ever since the senate decided on Niyog, she has not seen the king. Seven days, seven nights have passed… it feels like decades. Dharma dictates that… begins Mahattarika. Does that involve rejecting someone? retorts the queen.  

As the king continues to seek solace in his music, the courtiers wait impatiently. The hour of sunset is approaching. The chief minister is also waiting – for the queen. As Mahattarika comes out of her chambers, he asks her how the queen is feeling, a question he had asked earlier. Mahattarika is irritated.
The chief minister explains that he is duty-bound; there is no place for personal feelings in politics. Mahattarika smiles derisively. Everyone is interested in being ‘right’ rather than ‘fair’. The chief minister counters that she should know the customs and traditions of the land better than any one else – she grew up with the royal family.
Mahattarika approaches the king; she tells him that the queen needs his support more than ever. He wonders aloud why the queen went along with the senate’s resolution. Mahattarika reminds him that the queen did not have a choice – the senate passed the resolution and announced it; the king himself ratified it. 
The king tries to absolve himself of blame – what choice did he have? He was duty-bound! Accepting the senate’s advice was worse than accepting his own impotency! 
He rejects the queen’s request for an audience before she leaves. Queen Sheelavati is devastated when she hears the king will not see her. And furious. Has she failed in her duties? As a queen? As a wife? As a woman? And now… 
How could he make such a unilateral decision? (Isn’t this a question many women continue to ask today? When their fates are still decided by the men in their lives - "How could you make such a unilateral decison?") 
Or perhaps it is her fault that she has forgotten that he is a ruler, a statesman, a king, and...
She wonders: was he always this inadequate? This submissive? Couldn’t he have opposed the senate’s decision? What was more important? His duty as a husband? Or his duty as a king? Was his crown dearer to him than his wife? If he had given it up, wouldn't she have marched proudly with him away from the kingdom?  

While the priest and the army chief are waiting on the king, the chief minister is assuring the queen of his helplessness – she is the helpless one, she retorts. She is afraid of that unknown chamber, the unfamiliar bed, the coming intimacy with a stranger…
When he assures her that they would not ask this of her if it were not the only option left to them, she asks him, would he ask this of his daughter? Procreation is a woman’s chief responsibility, he avers. That is what religion demands, what customs ordain. And so a woman must be willing to face any ordeal. That is what he would have told his daughter… perhaps. As platitudes rain from his lips, the queen is silent.
But as they exit, she begs leave to ask him a question: What if she doesn’t conceive? Or worse… 
And if his religion did not have the answers to these questions, what right did he or his religion have to make her go through this ordeal?! 

As per custom, the king and his courtiers await the queen, and the king, repeating his head priest’s words gives his formal consent to the custom of niyog. 
Mindful of the chief minister’s orders, Maharattika stays with the king. It seems the night is unending, as the king talks and talks – of his deepest, darkest fears; of the fear in the queen’s eyes; of his childhood – until he collapses in tears at her feet. The courtiers are meanwhile discussing their decision and the rationale behind it ad nauseum; trying to justify it by any means. 

Time passes, the guard calling out the hour. And the king continues to stalk his chamber. Niyog doesn’t demand that she spend the whole night with another man. Why doesn’t the queen come back? Is he the only one at fault? Mahattarika confronts him – if the queen had refused the senate’s decision, would the king have supported her against the senate? His fury boils over. Maharattika is relieved when the sun rises – the dust will settle over all this, all the questions that the night threw up will be answered, she hopes. 
Mahattarika’s premonitions come true. As the morning raga sounds through the palace, the queen returns. 
And new problems arise. 
Will the king and the senate be able to find the answers to the questions the queen poses? Or will she bow down to the inevitable and accept her duty? How will her future decisions affect the relationship between her and the king, her husband? And how will alter the equations between the king and the senate? The queen and the senate?

The performances were finely tuned, with each actor in the cast fitting the character he / she played onscreen, However, two performances stand out. Sonali Bendre as Queen Sheelavati was magnificent, showing she was not just a pretty (beautiful!) face, and it’s a shame that she never got such roles during her short tenure in Hindi films. Caught between her love and (her consent unasked) unwelcome ‘duty’, she expresses her turmoil through her beautiful eyes, her effective dialogue delivery. When she finally realises her own strength, she does not knuckle under the senate's pressure. She has attained her own individuality, and is ready to own her own choices with integrity. She has also never looked as beautiful or as sensuous, before or since.

And Deepti Naval was brilliant in her role as chief maid Mahattarika, the only one who knows the king from childhood, and the queen’s chief confidante. Mahattarika is calm, wise beyond her years, and is privy to the emotions of both her royal masters. And as she explains to the queen, every one was waiting for her to return traumatised from her experience. They were ready to extend their sympathies to a queen who had sacrificed so much. But once she explained her feelings, then she was not a sympathetic character any more – a woman is not allowed to talk of sexual pleasure.

Anant Nag is the king, weak-willed, ashamed of his own impotency, angry with his queen for what he sees as her betrayal, and afraid of her new-found confidence. In the scene when Mahattarika comes to inform him of the approaching hour, he burst out – “ A king incapable of giving his kingdom an heir, a man incapable of giving his wife a son, a husband!’ The actor was the character, so much that you pity him for his helplessness, even while being contemptuous of his weakness in allowing his courtiers to put him and his queen in such an impossible situation, and his infamy in blaming his wife for the same.

Beautifully crafted, this film was a larger vision of a play that Amol Palekar had staged more than two decades before the film was made. Where the film diverged from the original is that the man with whom the queen conducts niyog is a man from her past.

The film was shot in a continuous 18-day stretch at Hampi (Karnataka). Meticulous attention has been paid to maintain the authenticity of the period, and the art director’s (Nitin Desai) sets have that lived-in look while maintaining the grandeur. The music is carefully interwoven into the story, and by using Dhrupad, Palekar has remained faithful to the period in which the story is set.

It’s a film that asks unsettling questions; demands that you think about what you saw, and I guarantee that it’s a film that will not leave you for quite some time after you watch it.

*Niyog: The practice of a woman having sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband for the sole purpose of procreation. The rules of Niyog are strictly laid down: 1) The husband has to be terminally ill or impotent 2) The elders in the house have to formally ‘demand’ an heir, and sanction the practice 3) The man with whom she sleeps with has to be selected with care 4) The whole practice has to be gone through with a sense of duty. 

The woman’s consent is neither sought nor important. She is allowed to choose her consort for the night – her up-pati. However, she is not allowed to ‘enjoy’ the sexual intercourse, for that turns it into adultery.
The picture in the title shot? It is a water clock. The smaller vessel has a small hole in it; as the water seeps in, the vessel sinks lower and lower until, finally, it sinks to the bottom of the larger vessel. Each full vessel signifies the passing of a quarter (3 hours) of half a day (12 hours) - a prahaar.

ps: There is a dubbed version in Hindi, but if possible, get your hands on the Marathi original. The sub-titles are decent, and the Hindi version does not have the authenticity of its Marathi counterpart. But if the Hindi version is all you can get, please do so anyway. This is definitely a film worth watching, if not owning.


  1. Good lord, why haven't I even heard of this?! It sounds amazing (and frankly, I like Sonali Bendre, even if she ended up getting rather awful roles most of the time... and Deepti Naval is an old favourite). Must, must look out for this.

    Oh, Anu. You wicked woman. Another film added to my list. :-(

  2. Oh, Anu. You wicked woman. Another film added to my list. :-(

    Laughing at that, Madhu. Payback is so sweet - do you know the number of films that have made their way into my list because of your recomenndations?

    Back to Anaahat, you should, should, should watch it. It's an incredible film, and so very feminist without the stridency. I love strong women characters, I love period films, and to have both together - especially when it is as well-made as Anaahat - things can't get much better. Actually, take a look at Amol Palekar's movies; they are usually worth watching. Even if they are blatant (and uncredited) copies like Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaaye. His originals, of course, are damn good!

  3. I had heard of this film, but did not know about it in so much detail. I'd love to watch it, and thankfully, I can understand Marathi, so I'll try to get my hands on a Marathi DVD.

  4. I did see this movie a while ago, and while I do not remember all the details, I remember liking it. At times I felt the movie was bit slow, but that maybe just me wanting more action. The feminist angle, as you point out, was not overt, and sometimes I felt it should have been more forceful. Nevertheless, a decent movie to watch.
    I did write about another Amol Palekar movie, which I liked more --- "Dhyaas Parva"

  5. Your review sounds so good it makes me want to see this movie today, this minute! I had heard of the practice of Niyog, but I didn't know there was a movie about it. Wish I could see it!

  6. Lalitha, thank you. :) You made my day. The movie is available on DVD; in fact, I bought it online - from Eros, I think. Of course, if you do not specify 'Marathi' the default DVD will be the dubbed Hindi version.

  7. Samir, it was slow, and I think the script demanded that. At least to me, it built up the tension of the waiting king; and the senators who are whiling the night away. The only quibble I had? The fact that the morning after scenes seemed rushed through. I wished Palekar had concentrated a bit more on the scenes between the king and queen when she comes back.

    I *loved* Dhyaas Paarva! As I said before, Amol Palekar is a director whose films I'll watch solely on the strength of *his* name.

  8. Banno, yes, please get the Marathi version. It's not that the Hindi version is bad; it's just that the flavour is more authentic in the original.

  9. I haven't heard of this film at all :( Why haven't I heard of this film? I'm glad you're reviewing films from other languages, Anu. When you don't understand the language, it's very difficult to know what to watch unless someone recommends it. The problem is there's so much to watch and so little time that I don't usually watch a movie unless someone whose taste I trust tells me a film is good. And my crowd stick to Hindi films and Hollywood (and so do I, usually), so fat chance I have of even hearing about films like these.

  10. Ruhi, the problem arises with films in regional languages. Unless you have someone tell you there is a good film named such-and-such, it's very difficult to get to know any film that is not in Hindi.The only reason I end up seeing films like these is because I read something about it on the Web, or someone lets me know - even so, there are so many good movies out there that go unseen for lack of publicity.

    I'm glad I could help - a little bit. :)

  11. I have heard so much of this film. Thanks to your review, I am attracted more towards it. I haven't seen Sonali Bendre in any film and she does looks good. There was atime when Anant Nag also lloked good. His brother Shankar Nag was more handsome. Remember Utsav? :-)
    I like slow films. I think I'll like it!
    Thanks for this good review!

  12. You're too good, Harvey. If you can get your hands on this film, grab it. It's really that good. Poor Sonali never got her due in Hindi films where she seemed content to play arm candy. Of course, I remember Utsav. :) (A review coming up some time; shhh...)

  13. Annoooo - yet another film that I haven't seen! And I'm not likely to get my hands on it any time soon either! Thanks for the screen caps - Sonali Bendre IS beautiful! I watched Sarfarosh over the weekend and thoroughly liked her in it, even though she only had a small role. (I liked the movie very much, too.)

  14. Tina, there's a whole lot of movies I haven't seen either. :) Anaahat is available online - if you are that interested. Just specify 'Marathi' or the default DVD is the dubbed Hindi version. And yes, Sarfarosh was a dashed good film.

  15. If you liked this movie, I would recommend Moghamul (1994) : I think you can only watch a Tam/subtitled version though.

    A rather slowpaced movie, but I liked the part where the girl calmly advises the guy to stop confusing lust with love, or worse, being in love with love : )

  16. AKM, welcome to my blog. And thanks for commenting. That premise you mentioned sounds intriguing! :) I can speak Tamil, so I'll see if I can grab a copy the next time I go home. It's strange that I haven't heard of this movie at all - care to share some details about the film? I'm always on the lookout for good movies, so thanks for the recommendation.

  17. This sounds very VERY interesting. How on earth do you find out about these films? And find the films themselves? I strongly suspect that you have a secret room, full of film-searching slaves, tucked away in your backyard. That IS the only way you could watch all these films, write about them, and still have a life!

    It may be a very long while before I can get my hands on this, so pleeeaaase tell me what happens in the rest of the film!

  18. Laughing Film-searching slaves? I read a lot about films. Actually, that's how I source my regional and international films. I bought this online - Eros Entertainment, I think. Otherwise, I always have a list of films that I want to buy when I go on my annual trip to India.

    *Spoiler ahead*

    When Queen Sheelavati enters the palace in the morning, the King and the chief minister have been waiting eagerly for her. She, however, goes into her chambers and asks for Mahattarika to come to her. When the chief minister asks for an audience, she tells him that since tradition allows her to practice Niyog thrice, she wants him to announce that she will take a man to her bed a week from then. The chief minister is aghast - it's one thing to bed a man out of wedlock to fulfil her duty; but for the queen to ask for it, to enjoy it - that turns it into adultery. Queen Sheelavati is in no mood to listen. She insists that it is a royal command. When the King comes to visit her, he is sure that they can put the thoughts of that night away and be happy. The queen demurs - she does not want to forget that night. It's given her so much. The King departs in gudgeon. As the queen is bathing, she has a conversation with Mahatarika. She knows that she has but two more chances to experience that bliss. Why shouldn't she? It does not take away from her love for her husband, the king. And after two more experiences she will gladly embrace her life as queen. But why does everyone forget she is also a woman? Mahattarika replies that they, the King and the courtiers, were ready to sympathise with her, as long as she pretended that she was only doing her duty. The minute she enjoyed the experience, she fell off her pedestal. According to the patriarchal norms, a woman's experience of sex should only be for procreation. For her to enjoy it means that she is not 'respectable' any more.

    Later, the queen approaches the king, who is still sulking. (Well, he looked like he was!) As she explains how it was not her intention to hurt him, that by pretending to not have enjoyed her experience, she would neither be true to him or to herself, the king is mollified - he loves her, and is sure now that she loves him too. It's his insecurities that cause him to doubt her love. (This part was a bit rushed - I wished Palekar had devoted some more time to the questions that would naturally arise between husband and wife.) As he takes her in his arms, you can hear the herald announcing the date of the next Niyog, from a distance.

  19. I saw this a long time ago because of my afore-mentioned Mallu friend. What's with you Mallus and good cinema? :))

  20. I like that stereotype, Sridhar. :)) Call us the intellectual snobs, if you will.

  21. This film is not available anywhere in market. not available (full movie) on internet also. Plz make it available.

  22.  I'm sorry, but I don't provide films for viewing. My site is just a place where I write about the films I watch. It is available to buy, surely. I bought my copy from Eros Entertainment, so that may be a place you could check.

  23. Aniruddha Sharma18 April 2013 at 08:04

    Just seen the movie...it is not a film, it is a poem. Each frame is a painting. Loved the movie. Amol Palekar is a great director. Hats off.

  24. Yes, that is exactly what it is. I'm glad you liked the movie.


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