Monday, April 10, 2017

Anaarkali of Aarah: Crass and cathartic

Anaarkali of Aarah, the debut film of journalist-turned-film director AvinashDas, makes a virtue of its rough, quite jagged, edges in telling a moving story of defiance by dancing woman belonging to a lower class. There is not much rhetoric or preachiness here. The story is told without embellishments of any kind, even if some kind of fine-tuning would have made it a better film and a more compelling story. The music is quite unmusical though it is full of energy, the dancing is garish, and the language unashamedly vulgar and un-poetical. It is a raw story and a raw film in every sense of the word. But it remains a poignant tale and that is why it succeeds.

It shows the injustice of the unequal power relationship, where the petty tyrants lord over it unhindered, and it needs an almost unhinged person -- and it needs an unhinged person to do so -- to throw down the gauntlet as it were, and that indeed frightens the powers that be. One of the supreme moments of the film is that last dance that Anaarkali/Swara Bhaskar performs, the macabre, death dance as it were, whipping up anger, wreaking vengeance. It is the cathartic moment for Anarkali, for the VC, played brilliantly by Sanjay Mishra, as the character reaps his just desserts, and for the audience.

The film could have taken a realistic and unhappy ending with Anaarkali returning to Aarah and taking her exploited place in the small town nightmare. But director Das opts for the leap of imagination that a creative channel offers and injects a moment of superior truth, which provides emotional and aesthetic satisfaction, and depicts the denouement of poetic justice. This is what films.plays/stories/poems should do and Das accepts the literary/aesthetic norm.

For those old enough to have seen Basu Bhattacharya's Teesri Kasam, produced by Shailendra based on the story of Phanishwarnath Renu, the word 'Hiraman' of the person from Arra in Delhi in the story, is a tangential throwback, a subtle allusion of the story of another nautanki dancer in the Bihar hinterland, facing up to discrimination and exploitation of another era, which was certainly less cruel and less vulgar than the small-town cesspool of today.
In that movie, Waheeda Rehman plays Hirabai, the dancer, and Raj Kapoor plays Hiraman, the cart-driver, and there is the silent unstated rapport between the two, which can only be called love.
In many ways, Anarkali of Arra overthrows the emotional beauty of that story and of that movie in order to state the hapless position of Anarkali in the ruthless world of today. It would appear to be a conscious rejection of that imagination.

One would not call the aesthetic rebellion of Das, where the tawdriness of the small town is invested with a fleeting beauty of its own, a misplaced one. But as he goes on to make other movies, he would get back to the imaginative and aesthetic equilibrium of Teesri Kaasam.

Bhaskar's performance is true to the character, with Anaarkali's unexpressed love for Anwar (who played his role?), and with her rage against the predators.

The one line that came to mind time and again during the movie was "The state is the enemy of the people". It felt so because of the impunity of many of the right-wing governments across north India. But it should be remembered that the situation shown in Anaarkali of Aarah has nothing to with Hindutva politics. The roots of the evil lie in a decadent and impoverished society of an underdeveloped north India.

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