Swara Bhaskar bites into the role of a lifetime in Avinash Das’s Anaarkali of Aarah, and she’s gloriously crass, a world removed from the hushed metro-chic of modern-day Bollywood. Her clothes span the gamut of Holi colours – her makeup too. She’s a folk singer/dancer, which is in itself something of a novelty, given that she’s the protagonist. We’ve seen women like Anaarkali do item songs in films whose heroines were restricted to the love songs, the sad songs – think Jayshree T dancing lustily to Mera saajan phool kamal ka in Tere Mere Sapne as the sari-clad Mumtaz, in the audience, smiled demurely. Or else, they were victims of fate – like the Kiran Vairale character in Namkeen, who took to this kind of singing/dancing simply so she could escape her sisters’ tragic fate.
Anaarkali’s closest cousin is probably Waheeda Rehman’s Hirabai in Teesri Kasam, but that gorgeous film was made in a more conservative time. Seen today, Waheeda is too graceful a dancer for the part, and her songs – like Lata’s ethereal Aa aa bhi jaa, with Shailendra’s refined lyrics (Teri yaad mein bekhabar / Shama ki tarah raat bhar) – aren’t rambunctious and randy the way Anaarkali’s are. (Composer Rohit Sharma does outstanding work.) Here’s a sample lyric: Dukhta hai, chubhta hai / Dheere se ghusta hai… It hurts. It pricks. It slides in slowly. What she’s really talking about isn’t as important as what she has you imagining.
The opening is remarkably subversive. It sets up a tragedy in Anaarkali’s life that makes us anticipate a because, a psychological “excuse” for why she is what she is (like we saw with the Namkeen character) – but Anaarkali is cheerfully, unapologetically, fearlessly her own person. Take her interactions with Anwar (a gently effective Mayur More), a young stalker who becomes a friend. At one point, he puts a hand on her – it appears he wants something more. She frowns. He quickly removes his hand. She smiles. She’s fond of him, but she also enjoys the power she wields over him, over men.
Anaarkali isn’t in this profession just to make money. It’s a form of self-expression. After Anaarkali moves out of her hometown of Aarah – it’s a small town in Bihar – she ends up in Delhi, and practically wilts without singing and dancing. And when she gets a chance to sing in a recording studio, she dresses up as though performing in front of a live audience. It’s her oxygen.
The story kicks off when Anaarkali is molested by a political big shot (Sanjay Mishra). The offence is twofold. It isn’t just that she is violated. He molests her during a performance – so it’s also that her space is violated. The moot question, then, is this: Does a woman who flaunts her wares so brazenly in the market have the right to refuse a customer? It’s the question asked in Pink, but in a different social milieu, where the movie playing in the local theatre is Saiyyan Chhokribaaz.
As in Pink, it’s a male figure that Anaarkali approaches for justice. Those girls sought out the Amitabh Bachchan character. Anaarkali goes to the local cop (a marvellously sleazy Vijay Kumar) and says she wants to file a report. He kicks her out. The rest of the story is about how she gets her revenge.
Avinash Das creates a fully lived-in world that makes us wince only when the local colour gets too bright – as with the cop named Bulbul Pandey, whose assistants are called Sukhilal and Dukhilal. Otherwise, the characters are completely captivating, and fantastically embodied by the actors. Pankaj Tripathi’s Rangeela, who alternates between being Anaarkali’s manager (some might say “pimp”) and her backup dancer on stage. Ishteyak Khan’s Hiraman (the name harks back to Teesri Kasam), buttoned all the way up to the collar and an Anaarkali devotee.
The last stretch is a bit wobbly. A chase in the streets is beautifully staged, but given that a key piece of evidence is already revealed to us, the end is free of fireworks. Seen one way, you could say the director resists the courtroom-drama cliché of the evidence whipped out at the last minute. But this decision also drains some juice out of the climactic drama.
Climactic dance, really. It’s an echo of the dance number that opened the film, it’s the same song. And here’s what works: the fact that the villain doesn’t just end up in jail, but ends up humiliated, in tears, the way Anaarkali was. He isn’t just punished for what he did to her. He’s put in her shoes, so he can have a first-hand experience of what she felt. It’s immensely satisfying, and even the staging – Anaarkali descends from the stage and starts dancing around her molester, whose wife and daughter are seated beside him – reflects the film’s point that boundaries should be respected. In other words, no means no.
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