(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Avinash Das’s Anaarkali of Aarah begins with a bang. Quite literally. This bang is sustained by Das throughout. There are no subtle cues in this charged ballad about a showgirl, an entertainer in the small town of Aarah in Bihar. It’s rambunctious in its narrative trajectory, it is unabashedly rowdy in its execution. Traits that complement its subject and setting, the overused “hinterlands”. But it has a beating heart. It is more redemptive than exploitative. It builds a story around ambition and consent, and does not deliver sermons. It uses its head. An entertainer is shot in her mouth in the middle of a performance as her daughter looks on. The daughter grows up to be an entertainer who can shoot off her mouth when necessary.
That a film like Anaarkali of Aarah is not exploitative is very important. Everywhere you turn – the genre, the setting, the character’s occupation, the story arcs and characters – there are landmines. Remember when actresses and directors, when confronted about painfully inserted item numbers (or even some scenes), used to talk about how they were shot aesthetically? Like it is a word that they just looked up. Das here demonstrates the emptiness of such an exercise and how it is all counterproductive. Das shows you Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) for what and who she is. Anaarkali loves doing her thing. Buying make up for her performances even if it means soaking in her fame. Dressing up. Singing and dancing in front of a dangerously interactive audience. Anaarkali at times may not wear sleeves but she wears her fame in its place all the time. She walks the streets of Aarah fully aware that everyone’s gaze is upon her. Even the back of her head has eyes. She thrives in this environment and she will show it to you.
But where women breathe, men will do stupid things. Anaarkali is harassed by a local university vice-chancellor (Sanjay Mishra), once sober and once in drunken stupor. She deals with it by following the only philosophy she subscribes to – offence is the best form of defense – and soon finds herself in the wrong side of the power equations. And also on the wrong side of Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), the man who runs their band and her occasional partner. From here, Das takes the film to places we’d never expect a film of this kind to go to. We think the narrative will now make us feel sorry for her. Das makes us reach for our handkerchiefs and then gently raps a knuckle. This is not that film. It is incredible how consistent the film is with respect to Anaarkali’s character. When we see her at her weakest moments, it is not because she was harassed or because her dissent is construed by men as affirmation. What really breaks her is the displacement. When she is unable to perform. When she can’t do what she loves to do and has been doing for years. Something that gives her so much joy. Just look at Bhaskar entering the modest of recording studios and breaking into Mora Piya Matlab Ka Yaar like she’s singing and dancing in front of a hundred people. She’s finally home.
Das clearly does not want to treat Anaarkali’s story as a tragedy. That’s patently unfair to the way her character is written. It’s just one more way this film subverts its own conventions. Das’s story is not Anaarkali against the world or humanity. Anaarkali is surrounded by good men all around. She’s initially skeptical of each one of them but can you blame her? Ishteyak Khan is particularly impressive as a small-time music marketer for whom Anaarkali is almost like a goddess. By now we know Bhaskar can perform but this film gives her the opportunity to perform. Watch her living, breathing and enjoying every ounce of the born entertainer that Anaarkali is. Her tics, her moves and her presence on stage. And watch as she comes into her own in the film’s extended climax, her foes transformed hapless and flaccid. Das knows that the DNA of his film is made of Anaarkali and her music, and his placement of the crescendo is just perfect.