The main plot-mover in Avinash Das’s excellent new film Anaarkali of Aaraah is an incident that begins as a show of buffoonery but grows into something dark and nasty, even as we go from chuckling to shifting uneasily in our seats. Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar), the star of a small-town troupe, is singing and dancing for her admiring audience when Dharmender (Sanjay Mishra), a very drunk and very smitten vice-chancellor, clambers onto the stage. At first he behaves like any number of over-enthusiastic men at this sort of show, briefly making a spectacle of themselves before staggering back into the audience. But he doesn’t back off: he goes from begging for Anaarkali’s personal attentions—in the manner of a pitiful, Devdas-like swain—to pawing and assaulting her.
Much of the scene’s effectiveness comes from how it toys with our perceptions: this flailing middle-aged man, barely in control of his movements, doesn’t fit our general ideas of what a menacing sexual predator might look like (Mishra, wonderful actor though he is, has a screen personality that seems better suited to playing savants or eccentric sidekicks); and Anaarkali, who has just performed a raunchy song in a garish costume, all gyrations and winks at her mostly male fans, doesn’t fit in with general ideas of what an imperiled woman might look like.
Yet that is the point, and it’s what makes the scene so discomfiting. In the space of a few seconds, the power equations shift: we see that Anaarkali, so assured when she is performing of her own will, embracing both her art and her sexuality, has suddenly had that control wrested from her (Bhaskar shifts gears from fiery self-possession to vulnerability with consummate ease); and that Dharmender, a man with political connections in Aaraah, is a very real threat to her autonomy and livelihood.
It is one of many fine moments in a story about social hegemonies and the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which sexual oppression plays out. After last year’s Pink, which affirmed the “No means No” mantra in the context of a young urban woman being sexually harassed – with the film underlining that it doesn’t matter how she is dressed or how hard she parties – Anaarkali of Aaraah addresses the theme in a different setting. But in the process, we are reminded that ideas about “loose” or “available” women transcend the rural-urban and class divides. In the south Delhi of Pink, these perceptions might be directed at an office-going girl who lives away from her parents in a PG accommodation and goes out with boys late at night; in the Aaraah of Das’s film, it might be a woman in a “not very respectable” profession that invites the male gaze and seems to hold out a promise of more than just looking.
And in both these stories, the woman says: yes, I’ll do this and this and this if I choose to, but that doesn’t mean you can assume I’ll do this as well.
Pink was a good film, but I thought Anaarkali of Aaraah was sharper and more focused overall, largely because it keeps its lens almost throughout on a compelling woman protagonist. Bhaskar’s performance and Anaarkali’s centrality to the narrative (the film’s men, though well-written and acted, orbit around her) make this a more overtly “lady-oriented” film (as censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani would reproachfully say) than Pink, with its grandstanding male lawyers and male judge, was. The first scene – a tragedy from Anaarkali’s childhood—prepares us for a protagonist whose life will be tinged with melancholia, but this doesn’t happen. Instead of being crippled or dispirited by the past, she derives strength from memories of her mother—a woman who probably had less agency and fewer choices than Anaarkali does, but who managed to retain her dignity and self-worth even in a tough situation.
After a very taut first half—including a tense, masterfully staged scene where Anaarkali, accompanied by her partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), goes to meet Dharmender—the film slackens a little. To a degree, this has to do with the protagonist’s shift to a new setting and the need to lie low for a bit. (I was reminded of the post-interval change in tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, which has a comparable narrative arc.) But the pace picks up again as the story moves back to Aaraah (you have to go home to stare down old demons) and towards a stirring climactic scene where what might seem on the surface to be “just” a lowbrow dance performance becomes an exhilarating reclamation of sexuality and choice. (The scene can also be viewed as a comment on the subject-gaze relationship. Earlier in the film, Dharmender crudely broke the Fourth Wall by encroaching on Anaarkali’s performance; now, as he sits next to his wife and daughter, she pays him back in the same coin, stepping off the stage and fracturing his personal, domestic space.) And the buildup to this Big Moment is paved with some lovely scenes in a minor key, such as a brief meeting between Anaarkali and Rangeela at the courthouse when the affection between them is palpable despite everything that has happened.
It could be pointed out that like the girls in Pink, Anaarkali too eventually needs a man to help her pull off a final coup. But the assistance in this case feels more incidental; one gets a stronger sense that events have flown from the force of her own personality, her upbringing, her unwillingness to keel over in a situation where many of us would think that was the safest, most practical option.
I don’t know how much this film has been directly influenced by real-life events, but it seems particularly topical in the current climate. An early scene is reminiscent – in its depiction of how “fun and games” can cross a line and become lethal – of the recent shooting of a dancer at a wedding party near Bathinda. (And again, lest you think that this sort of thing happens only in “backward” places, remember Jessica Lal.) But on a broader note, there is also the ongoing farce of the “anti-Romeo” squads in Uttar Pradesh which infantilize young women who have boyfriends, telling them they need to be careful “for their own good”, even if that means staying shut up at home until their parents find a socially approved groom. This suppressing of female sexuality (or requiring that no such thing should exist) goes hand in hand with the assumption that women who don’t fit the good-girl mould are fair game and shouldn’t complain about harassment. Against this background, how satisfying it is to see a scene – even if it feels a bit like wish-fulfilment – where a woman looks a powerful man in the eye and tell him that whether he thinks of her as a randi or something “a little less than” a randi (a reference to an earlier dialogue) or as a housewife, he must not touch her without permission.