In his debut feature Anaarkali of Aarah, Avinash Das has scripted a story that takes him back to his roots. The 41-year-old director grew up in Bihar and is familiar with the culture of folk musicians who perform for local and sometimes raucous crowds. Female singers are both bait and target, often forced to dance to the tunes of a local bully. The March 24 release is set in the Bihari city Aarah, and stars Swara Bhaskar in the titular role. Anaarkali is a street singer and dancer who is sexually assaulted by a politician (Sanjay Mishra). Anaarkali and her musical partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi) approach the police to arrest Mishra, resulting in a tussle between his political clout and her fight for justice.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Das spoke about his long career as a news editor in Delhi and the true incidents that inspired him to switch to filmmaking.
How did the story of ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ take shape?
Many years ago on YouTube, I happened to see the music video of an erotic song, Hare Hare Nebuaa, sung by the Bhojpuri folk artist Tarabano Faizabadi. It intrigued me that visuals of Tarabano singing expressionless in a studio were mixed with a sequence in which a woman is trying to seduce a man. Then in 2011, a very well-known Bhojpuri singer, Devi, pressed charges of molestation against vice chancellor DP Sinha of Jai Prakash Narayan University in Chhapra after he misbehaved with her at a concert. These two threads began to form into a script about a street singer who sings erotically-charged songs but has the integrity to challenge the powers when she is mistreated.
Any particular reason for the film’s title?
I initially thought about setting the plot in Uttar Pradesh, but I am from Patna and am familiar with the local culture of Bihar. Arrah is a centrally located city where folk singers perform to large audiences. There have been instances where street singers have faced trouble with the locals. Arrah happened to be the perfect backdrop for my story.
Was it difficult to find a producer?
It wasn’t so difficult. Manoj Bajpayee is a friend, and he introduced me to an independent producer, Sandiip Kapur. They had worked together in the film Jugaad. Sandiip heard the script and he immediately decided to produce it.
When did you begin shooting?
We initially began the film in 2012 with Richa Chadha, but Gangs of Wasseypur was released that year and she began to get meaty roles. She probably felt that Anaarkali of Aarah would not be as big a film as the offers she was getting. She got cold feet and decided to opt out. The film got stuck for a while since we had no lead. I had given the script to Swara Bhaskar, and she said she would love to do it. Swara was the driving force from the making to the release date.
Did you conduct a workshop for your actors for their roles?
To prepare Swara Bhaskar for the role of a street singer, we held a one-month workshop for her and some cast members to understand the nuances of the language. She was a quick learner. She travelled to Aarah to understand the milieu in which such folk singers perform. She spent time meeting and talking to the local Munni Orchestra Group of female singers to familiarise herself with their songs and dialect. She stayed at the cheapest hotel in Aarah and shopped, ate and mingled with the locals. She did her own thorough research to play the part.
What about the supporting actors?
I had once seen Pankaj Tripathi in a play, in which he modulated his voice to sing a female version of Jagjit Singh’s ghazal Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho. I was struck by his versatility and that moment stayed with me. When I began looking for actors, I decided that I wanted to work with him. He agreed.
Sanjay Mishra heard the first scene during a narration and agreed to be in the film.
What about finding the right composer to create the Bhojpuri tunes?
The music is by Rohit Sharma. He has worked on the soundtrack of Ship of Theseus and Buddha In A Traffic Jam. I wasn’t sure that he would be able to bring about the rustic flavour of Bhojpuri songs in his tunes. He took it as a challenge. I gave him references of over a thousand songs. After hearing the first track he recorded, all my worries were put to rest.
Why and how did you switch from journalism and television production to filmmaking?
I have been working since 1996. I was an editor at Dainik Bhaskar and Prabhat Khabar. I worked at NDTV and for the television show Satyamev Jayate. I always wanted to move to filmmaking, but it was not until my wife supported me that I could do so. She took up a media job, took care of the house and asked me to write my script, travel from Delhi, where we live, to Mumbai and struggle, as they say.
Some years ago, I used to actively host the website Mohalla Live, an online Hindi platform for news, debates and discussion. I started a series of discourse called Bahastalab, for which we invited people from the world of news, films and literary personalities to discuss social issues. That is when I began to make a lot of friends.
I met director Kamal Swaroop through the series. He asked me to help him research his documentary The Battle of Banaras in 2014. I assisted him through the making and it helped me get the on-field experience that I needed to begin work on my own film.