Anaarkali of Aarah: Let's talk about consent

Swara Bhaskar as Anaarkali.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There is a character called Hiraman in Avinash Das’s debut film Anaarkali of Aarah. A marketeer of cheap music CDs and a die hard fan of Anaarkali — the singer-performer of raunchy songs from the heartland of Bhojpur. He helps her in trying times, becomes a friend, confidante and support system. This reference to Hiraman gadivala (played by Raj Kapoor) links the film effectively to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam and in turn to Phanishwar Nath Renu’s short story Maare Gaye Gulfam.

The theme of exploitation of a singer-dancer at the hands of powerful men in rural Bihar continues in Anaarkali. There it was a demure and dignified Hirabai (Waheeda Rehman), fobbing off Thakur Vikram Singh’s (Iftekhar) advances, here it is a flamboyant Anaarkali (Swara Bhasker) at the receiving end of a university vice chancellor’s (Sanjay Mishra) naked lust.

Anaarkali of Aarah
  • Director: Avinash Das
  • Starring: Swara Bhasker, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra, Ishtiyaq Khan
  • Run time: 113 mins

But times they are a changing. Hirabai, resigned to her own fate, was more concerned about protecting the innocence of Hiraman; here Anaarkali refuses to be cowed down by the society just because she is in the business of entertainment. She may not be a "sati savitri" but has the first right to her body and dignity. The songs here get blatantly suggestive, replete with sexual innuendoes, the dances raunchy. It’s evident that Das knows the rough and rustic world of the bawdy singer-dancers of Aarah very well, as he does the marginalised blue collar Bihari pockets of Delhi. The social picture gets painted with little, subversive details — the janeo (holy thread) of the villain, the silent Muslim lover of Anaarkali, the cosmetic vendor's insistence that she shouldn't reveal his name (and hence the caste) while singing a song dedicated to his beloved.

Das sets things up very well—the bonhomie of the training sessions of the troupe, the deliberate crudity and crassness of the shows, the screaming kitsch, the garishness. He shows it all with down and dirty details but never once does his gaze get voyeuristic. The male dominated, misogynistic world is horrifying and fraught with danger for any woman. You almost feel like plucking the boisterous Anaarkali out from the entitled male universe and placing her in some safe sanctuary. It all comes together very well with the ensemble led by a feisty Swara Bhaskar who, quite evidently, has given her all to the lead role besides the weight and that free spirited gait. Pankaj Tripathi as Rangeela, whose troupe she is a part of, is delightfully easy and light-footed; their playful banter is lovely. In a change of track, Sanjay Mishra goes an evil shade of black and how! The takeaway, however, has been Ishtiyaq Khan in the small role of Hiraman, the heart-tugger with the mock-ironic call to do things "Desh ke liye". We get the point!

However, while setting up a new discourse Das also, at times, falls prey to some time-worn melodrama—the tragedy involving the mother, the burden of inheritance detract. The complication, resolution seem to be hinging on contrivances though the finale—Anaarkali's rebellion through her own talent and calling—seems entirely appropriate. But I also kept getting the feeling that the film was meant to be much more than the feminist statement it eventually chooses to become.

Anaarkali of Aarah delivers yet another “no means no” message which, in the wake of Pink may seem rather me-too. But then have we understood the meaning and primacy of consent yet? Will we ever?

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 3:34:37 PM |

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