If a woman performs songs about sexual desire and fulfillment, has a married man for a lover, and wears garish make-up and clothes that show off her curves, does she have the right to complain when one of her patrons gets the wrong idea?
We know the answer to that one, but the movie’s heroine and villain find out the hard way.
Avinash Das’s debut movie Anaarkali of Aarah is stripped of the easy moralising that is associated with the sub-genre of films about female singers, dancers and courtesans. Instead, the 113-minute drama about consent, sexual violence and male entitlement has a strong moral core and a very clear sense of what is right and wrong. There isn’t a single scene to justify Anaarkali’s choice of profession – as a prologue makes clear, she has descended from a family of performers. Powered by a superb central performance by Swara Bhaskar and a rumbustious score by Rohit Sharma, the movie presents a rare empathetic view of traditional folk singers and is always alive to the threats they face from hypocrites and predators.
When Anaarkali sashays onto the stage to perform songs that have the potential to burn the ear lobes, her performances are accompanied by flicks of the waist and thrusts of the breast that leave her audience in no doubt about her seductive powers. When she starts singing erotic tunes, her fans go into raptures, but they respect the invisible line between the stage and the audience. The events that set Anaarkali’s saga into motion follow one man’s inability to distinguish between the performer and the woman he wants to own.
Dharmender Chauhan (Sanjay Mishra) is an odious university vice-chancellor who has reached his position because of political connections rather than academic heft. When Dharmender assaults Anaarkali in a drunken state during a temperature-raising performance, the singer refuses to let it be. A feisty and perhaps foolish young woman who is very sure of her place in the world, Anaarkali finds herself isolated in her attempts to demand justice. Her professional and romantic partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi) advises pragmatism and compromise, but Anaarkali is made of sterner stuff.
Anaarkali uses her body and image for commercial gain, but she also knows to fight for her reputation. The character’s savviness, strength and courage are beautifully conveyed by Bhaskar, whose body language on the stage is as perfect as her solo battlefield moves.
In its intense focus on Anaarkali’s battle and efforts to showcase Bhaskar’s acting acumen, the movie sometimes lets go of the opportunity to generalise her battle. Anaarkali’s troupe comprises other female singers, but we never hear of their reactions to her public assault. Das based his story on a real-life case, in which the folk singer Devi was assaulted by DP Sinha, the vice-chancellor of Jai Prakash Narayan University in Chhapra in 2011. That incident invited strong condemnation by folk singers in the state, but Anaarkali mostly soldiers on alone.
Das’s eye for local detail and ear for the cadences of speech in small-town Bihar create a distinctly flavourful milieu. The movie is spilling over with actors who perfectly depict the film’s setting – apart from the always dependable Tripathi, there is Ishtiak Khan, as Anaarkali’s admirer and saviour. Khan’s character is called Hiraman, a clever nod to the 1966 movie Teesri Kasam, about a folk performer and her complicated relationship with a bullock cart driver. But Anaarkali of Aarah is closer in spirit to Saba Dewan’s 2008 documentary Naach, about women who perform at cattle fairs in Bihar and, for the delirious spectators, are indistinguishable from livestock.
To be sure, the story does suffer from the indulgences and creases that often mark a debutant effort. Das lets the film roll on for a little longer than it should have, and the fairy-tale solution to a resolutely realistic narrative seems out of place. If we indulge the heroine her skip into the night, it’s because Das and Bhaskar have created a formidable case for Team Anaarkali. She is introduced by Rangeela on stage as “Desi Tandoor Videsi Oven”, and the leap from the frying pan into the fire is both scorching and convincing.