Director: Avinash Das
Cast: Swara Bhaskar, Sanjai Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Vijay Kumar, Mayur More, Ishteyak Khan
It's easy to fall into the trap of demonstrating a crass society, a shiny brassy environment, by pigeonholing it into a vulgar-looking film. Every gaudy character, lewd gaze and innuendo-laden verse is merely a heartbeat away from being Bollywood-ified. And one greedy B-grade producer away from becoming a sleazy potboiler of sleaze. But Anaarkali of Aarah actually delves into the "soul" of what is essentially the item-song culture.
We've seen it in many underworld thrillers and hinterland sagas – the 'frisky' sequence where shady meetings and corrupt politicians thrive under the veil of a context-less UP-or-Bihar dancer girl energetically belting out lusty lyrics on stage.
Alcohol flows, men misbehave and rifles are shot as celebratory marks. This lady is, often, more or less faceless and fleeting, and simply serves as an entertaining, alluring and textural breather from the plot. She is hired, and presumably does it because the money is good. Not because she loves flaunting it.
Most Hindi films use her – just like the men in the film do – as a commercial attraction. The action happens before or after her rather revealing performance amidst a gang of gun-toting hooligans.
This film, though, provides a face, and a vibrant voice and story, to that girl on the stage. She is more than just flesh in a flimsy blouse, or a party number on an album. Thankfully, she isn't pure either; she is feisty, fiery, flawed and believes in the basic power of consent.
Behind the scenes, she may or may not make mistakes, seduces married men, but retains the right to make her own choices. When she is molested on stage by a drunken top cop (Sanjai Mishra; finally proving his versatility), and then bullied by the system, much of these suppressed characteristics come to the fore. Notably, even she seems to be surprised, more than shaken, by her own barnstorming reactions.
Debutant director Avinash Das drives home all this familiar 'rightness' with a regular staple of dramatic monologues and strange background music. But more importantly, he makes his protagonist (Swara Bhaskar) a multidimensional one – as much a workaholic as a lover, as much a vulnerable girl as a proud woman.
Early scenes show the appropriately named Anaarkali utterly engrossed in her craft, her singing and sur – she is an artist, irrespective of the fact that her art is routinely misconstrued as a hollow medium of visual consumption, a trade just short of prostitution. She knows this, and doesn't mind it. Not only because it is her means of living, but also because she genuinely enjoys her own talent. She does it for herself. It only happens to make others happy.
Debutant director Avinash Das makes his protagonist (Swara Bhaskar) a multidimensional one – as much a workaholic as a lover, as much a vulnerable girl as a proud woman
Das spends majority of the first act showcasing her moves in full-length throaty songs (not just as montages) at crowded events. She feeds off the crowd. They react to her. Repeat. This allows the chaos, the face paint, sweat, sounds and the atmosphere to seep into our unconditioned senses, until it becomes clear that there is no better way to define a character than just letting her do what she does.
Her saucy personality is just an extension of it bearing the label of a 'sexy' profession. She wears her confidence, her gait and garish clothes, like a badge of juvenile rebellion. When she sits on her terrace smoking a beedi every night, one can be sure she is not quite agonizing about her conscience. She could just be mentally designing a new set piece, or visualizing a rapturous, refined audience.
This is what perhaps sets Anaarkali of Aarah apart from a Gulabi Gang or a Sonali Cable. All three films are set around gimmicky small-town hues and crowd-pleasing feminist undertones, but one lets its lady grow naturally as more than just a 'resounding statement,' while the other two cry themselves hoarse about their token braveness.
Needless to mention, Bhaskar is also the difference. She is a fine, fine actress; there were moments when I angrily gritted my teeth while she confronted diseased minds, willing her to slap them to pulp instead of hoping for her safety.
For some reason, I didn't want to feel sorry for her. Which is why I'm not too sure she needed an unnecessarily tragic childhood story to justify her destiny – but what will a movie-movie be without an arc of generational redemption?
This is what perhaps sets Anaarkali of Aarah apart from a Gulabi Gang or a Sonali Cable. All three films are set around gimmicky small-town hues and crowd-pleasing feminist undertones, but one lets its lady grow naturally as more than just a 'resounding statement,' while the other two cry themselves hoarse about their token braveness
The film visibly makes a conscious effort to infuse a lot of regional flavour into its proceedings. There are, for instance, a lot of cold openings – that is, characters doing completely unrelated, whimsical things at the beginning of most scenes: a wig-wearing, menacing Mishra is invariably seen playing the fool, from composing a vapid song to the CM on the phone, to being stunned into silence by a Sanskrit-speaking girl asking for a favour.
Everyone, from his sidekicks ('Muffler' and 'ATM') to the lower-ranked SHO (a superb Vijay Kumar), swings between mandatory comic-relief devices to ominous patriarchal villainy. This moodiness is quite annoying, but occasionally necessary to make us feel uncomfortable. This is not to say that bad people have a lighter side; they are so oblivious to decency that they often aren't even aware of their own eccentricities.
It's also interesting to note how all the men in Anaarkali's life lend credence to the 'don't judge a book by its cover' proverb. The faces we initially believe to be noble (Pankaj Tripathi, as her playful boss) turn sour, while an enigmatic young stalker (Mayur More), a creepy music marketer (Ishteyak Khan) and an arrogant Jatt studio owner become her knights in not-so-shining armour when she's on the run in a big city.
By not defining any of their relationships, a weaker Anaarkali's discovery of such platonic, virtuous emotions goes a long way in re-establishing her as a work in progress. It gives her enough to find in herself the power to trust, not men, but her own perceptions again.
Even by the end, despite making some typically showy decisions, she seems to constantly be learning about herself; her strengths and inadequacies; perhaps a little more about life – and, more than anything, the ability to express herself. What better compliment can there be for a film that humanizes the showgirl without a single item song?
Watch the trailer here: