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11 October 2017

Anaarkali of Aarah (2017)

Directed by: Avinash Das
Music: Rohit Sharma
Lyrics: Avinash Das, Ram Kumar Singh
Dr Sagar, Ravindra Randhawa, 
Prashant Ingle
Starring: Swara Bhaskar, Sanjay Mishra, 
Pankaj Tripathi, Ishityak Khan, Vijay Kumar,
Mayur More
We learnt what consent means in Pink – a ‘big’ film about three working women – women like us – who face the consequences of a man not taking their ‘No’ for a final answer. Middle class women, coming from ‘respectable’ families, women who work in offices for a living. Urban, well-educated and independent. We felt for them, having had similar experiences where our reputations are scarred only because of the way we dressed, or the way we ‘talked to boys’.

But what happens when the lady in question is a folk entertainer, who dances wherever she gets a gig? Whose songs run the gamut from the raunchy to the frankly vulgar? Who, by her own admission, is no ‘Sati Savitri’ and has no qualms about exchanging sexual favours for money? Does she get to say ‘No’ and have that non-consent respected?

Anaarkali of Aarah is set in a world far removed from that of Pink. ‘Anaarkali’ (Swara Bhaskar) is a cheerful, impudent, opinionated woman with a penchant for bright clothes – the brighter the better – and loud make up, who swaggers through the streets of Aarah (a town in Bihar). She has a ‘friends with benefits’ situation with Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), the manager of the Rangeela Orchestra Party, a troupe of folk entertainers, where she is the lead dancer.
The troupe gets called to sing and dance for various functions, usually organised by the local politicians and the landed elite, at their homes, in the villages and small towns, or even on college precincts. Their bawdy songs and raunchy dances are meant to cater to just the kind of audience they attract. 'Anaarkali of Aarah from Englishpura Aarah’ is unabashed at having to mouth the risqué lyrics filled with double entendre. (‘Dukhta hai, chhubta hai, dheere se ghusta hai’ goes one set of lyrics – it gets her almost-all-male audience to attention, if you know what I mean.) Anaarkali enjoys her work, and an activist morcha protesting the singing of ‘vulgar’ songs only makes her laugh. 
One day, the troupe is booked for a performance at the Dussehra celebrations organised by the local police. The much-married University Vice Chancellor, Dharmender Chauhan (Sanjay Mishra in a bad wig), is a huge fan of Anaarkali’s and never misses a performance if he can help it. He hopes to set her up as his mistress and is, in fact, building a secluded bungalow where she can live.
That evening, however, Chauhan, drunk and aware of his own sphere of influence (it is said he has the Chief Minister’s ear), loses what little control he has. Much to the consternation of the police inspector on dutyBulbul Pandey (Vijay Kumar) [a cheeky nod to Salman Khan], Chauhan ascends the stage mid-performance. Despite Anaarkali trying to salvage the situation, he attempts to ravish her in full view of the audience. 
A furious Anaarkali retaliates, both verbally and physically. Inspector Pandey, afraid of the consequences, dives into damage control – he seals the exits, confiscates the mobile phones of everyone in the audience, deletes the recordings, before he lets the audience leave.

The troupe is anxious – while they console their Anaar, they know what Chauhan is like, and to what lengths he would go to minimise the damage to his reputation. They do not want to lose another 'Chamki' (Ispita Choudhary Singh as Anaarkali's mother). Howeer, Anaarkali feels doubly violated – not just because the assault happened in public, but also because the assault happened on stage, which is her professional space.

Meanwhile, Chauhan has woken up with no recollection of his actions of the previous night. He knows he overstepped his bounds, but he has no idea just how far he went. Neither does he remember that Anaarkali's reaction. All he wants now is to protect his reputation.
Inspector Pandey and Chauhan's men are careful to give him a censored version of events. In a bid to make amends, Chauhan sends his men to call Anaarkali for lunch.

The men, hired goons, treat her with a contempt that only serves to infuriate an already-seething Anaarkali. Despite Rangeela’s entreaties, she goes to the police station. Inspector Pandey tries to calm her down but when Anaarkali insists upon an F.I.R being filed, he has her thrown out.
All of Chauhan's entreaties of love, and Inspector Pandey's and Rangeela's attempts at rapprochement fail. When a peeved Chauhan offers her money to 'sell’ her honour, Anarakali accepts it, retorting: 'Hum paisa bhi rakhenge, aur denge bhi nahin. Jhaadi mein dum hai to leke dikha deejiye. Baaki kutte aap hain – bhaunkhte rahiye.' ('I’ll take your money, and not put out either. Take your money back if you have the guts. Else, you’re just a dog – keep barking!') An incensed Chauhan watches as she leaves - who is she, after all? A whore? No, less than a whore. She needs to be taught a leasson. 
Anaarkali is soon to learn how easy it is for Chauhan to do as he pleases. Publicly humiliated and arrested by Inspector Pandey on false charges, Anaarkali is thrown into jail. Inspector Pandey hopes that a night in a cell will cow her into submission. But Anaarkali is not yet beaten. Out on bail, she flounces off to tell Chauhan exactly what happened that fateful night. It’s an action that is driven partly by outrage and partly by bravado – how dare he? Deep down, she knows she’s playing with fire,  but her anger transcends her usual good sense and Rangeela's sane counsel. 
That incident has grave consequences, and Anaarkali is forced to leave Aarah. Will her absence make Chauhan overlook her insults? 

Anaarkali is a heroine seldom seen on the Indian screen. She is someone who revels in her sexuality, in her ability to arouse men through her song-and-dance routine. In fact, song and dance is, for her, life itself – when she moves to Delhi and cannot sing, she wilts. 
To a large extent, her notoriety had made her somewhat of a local celebrity in Aarah. She delights in her power over men – witness the scene where she uses her celebrity status to get cosmetics for free from a shopkeeper who only wants her to recite his poetry (written for his beloved) on stage, or where Anwar, besotted with her, places his hand gently over hers. Initially taken aback (he’s much younger than she is, and she had not thought of him that way), her frown gives way to a smile. It pleases her that he finds her attractive.
I was first introduced to Swara Bhaskar in the polarising Raanjhnaa, and was impressed by her natural ease in a thankless role. Later, I saw her performances in Listen… Amaya, Tanu Weds Manu, Aurangzeb and Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo – each performance cemented my belief that here was an actor to watch out for. As Anaarkali, Swara is both uninhibited and mesmerising. She owns her part, and whether it is her dialogue delivery or her body language, her dance moves or her ability to emote just as much with her silences as she does with her words – she is truly magnificent. 
Swara is definitely one of the finest actresses we have today, and her Anaarkali is neither a tragic victim of fate nor a brazen vamp. It is a nuanced performance that gives us a living, breathing woman who has both emotions and self-respect, and is not ashamed to give in to one and fight for the other.
She is supported by a stellar cast – Sanjay Mishra / Chauhan who finds that his power is not as invincible as he thinks; Pankaj Tripathy / Rangeela, who both adores Anaarkali but is not loath to pimp her out; a young Mayur More /Anwar, who runs away with Anaarkali and Ishtiyak Khan / Hiraman – the two men who are kind to Anaarkali without wanting anything in return… even the cops (Dukhilal and Sukhilal), the landlady, the studio owner, Chauhan's men (named ATM and Muffler) , the sanskari bahu who spouts Sanskrit shlokas – they all live their roles to perfection.
Debutant director Avinash Das roots his story in a milieu that he makes as realistic as he possibly can – whether it is the lingo or the sets, the costumes or the body language, or even the music (an outstanding score by Rohit Sharma). It is a world that comes alive – whether it is in the camaraderie between the troupe members during rehearsals, or the deliberate crudity of the performances; whether it is the small-town colour and flavour or the pockets of displaced regionalism in our national city.
As social commentary, Anaarkali of Aarah makes a powerful statement – the same point that Pink made – that a woman’s ‘No’ means ‘No’ – but makes it quietly and with conviction. Unlike Pink, however, Anaarkali’s fight is not in court – much to Anwar’s dismay, she cleverly sidesteps that route by appealing to Chauhan’s ego – Kadhai aapka hai, tel aapka hai. Ab us mein puri chhaaniye ki halwa banaaiye aap. (The wok is yours, so is the oil. Now whether you fry puris in it or make halwa, that’s up to you.)
Nor, unlike in Pink, does she need a man to say that her 'No' means 'No'. 

What makes this subject work is the respect the director has for his characters. That respect precludes voyeurism or vulgarity, and gives us a definitive female character – one who respects herself, and is willing to hold her head high, no matter how much society shames her. It is given that women are shamed even when they are the victims – here is one script that refuses to do so. Just for that, I would have recommended this film.

However, Anaarkali of Aarah goes beyond not just slut-shaming its protagonist – it gives you a glimpse into a world that is at once real – and distant. How many of us who live in urban centres know people like Anaarkali and Rangeela? Or even Anwar or Hiraman? 
How many of us would look down upon a woman such as the paan-chewing, beedi-smoking, foul-mouthed Anaarkali for what she does? However, that Anaarkali sometimes chooses to trade sexual favours for money, or that she has multiple sex partners, does not mean that she is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. In one telling sequence in the second half of the movie, Anaarkali tells  Hiraman [a nod to Teesri Kasam] that it is not as if she is pure and chaste; ‘Sab ko lagta hai ki hum gaanewale log hain; koiyo aasaani se baja dega, par ab… aisa nahin hoga.’ (Everyone thinks we are entertainers so they can f*ck us anywhere, anytime. But not anymore.) 

She emphasies that point when she meets Chauhan later: ‘Baaki, randi ho, randi se thoda kum ho ya biwo ho – aainda marji poochke haath lagaaiyega.’ (For the rest, whether she’s a whore, less than a whore, or your own wife – ask for her consent before you lay a hand on her.) 
 Anaarkali of Aarah underlines the fact that no matter how much a woman might display (or sell) her wares, she still has agency, choice, and free will. It may not be a choice that many women have, and the ending may seem simplistic, but it is important that this woman has a choice – and that she chooses to exercise it.
Who knows? Perhaps another woman in similar circumstances might now be inspired to say 'Humre badanva ke hum maharaniya ke tumri jagiriya ko nah nah nah nah…'

It's available on Netflix and on YouTube.

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