29 March 2017

Taking Risks with the Risqué

My Mirror column:

Anaarkali of Aarah pushes Hindi cinema’s take on sexuality and consent in exactly the direction it needs to go — and does so with effervescence and flair.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about two groups of women who made a living performing for men, while remaining powerfully in control of their own bodies. This week, my subject is a fictional character who shares a great deal with them both: the lavani dancers of Sangeet Bari and the American burlesque artistes profiled in the marvellous League of Exotique Dancers.

Anaarkali Aarahwali – the eponymous protagonist of long-time Hindi journalist Avinash Das's wonderful debut feature -- sings risqué Bhojpuri songs and dances for all-male audiences in the rough-and-ready world of the Bihari small town. Yet she is more profoundly possessed of a sense of self than most 'respectable' women. Between Das and his lyricist Ramkumar Singh, the film has an abundance of earthy wit, letting us inhabit a Bihar that's simultaneously lighter and more acute than anything Prakash Jha has shown us recently.

Das brings to the Hindi screen a hugely popular musical-sexual subculture that travels with the Bihari worker to Delhi and beyond. (Anaarkali's name, for instance, echoes those of real-life singers Tarabai Faizabadi, Sairabano Faizabadi, Fatmabai Faizabadi, several of whom have cut raunchy Bhojpuri albums with suggestive names, a popular title being that of Anaarkali's album in the film: Laal Timatar.) And in the paan-chewing, double-entendre-spewing Anaarkali, writer-director Das and the terrific Swara Bhaskar give us a deeply believable heroine full of joie de vivre, unabashed in her enjoyment of what life has to offer her.

The universe she inhabits may seem shaped by male desire, but Anaar refuses to give men sole rights over desirousness, or indeed, sexualness. Whether she is putting her almost muscular energy on display amid a crowd of cheering men, swaying deliberately down an Aarah street with her dupatta draped just so, or applauding the unexpected musical talent of a boy who's been skulking around her house, Bhaskar's Anaarkali is a woman who wrings sensual delight from everything that she can – but on her own terms. She may carry on a relationship with her musical comrade Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathy, very effective), but he does not control her choices – and he knows it.

With its easy banter and on-again off-again flirtation, Rangeela and Anaar's connection is built on a sense of camaraderie between equals. But what Das's film makes sadly clear is that it is a rare man who can accept a woman who expresses her own wishes while refusing to kowtow to those of others.

The plot is centred on Anaar's confrontation with a local bigwig called VC Dharmendar (Sanjay Mishra) who, having drunk a little too much at one of her shows, climbs on to stage and molests her in full public view. Anaar first tries gamely to keep dancing, but when things go beyond the pale, she wrenches herself away, slaps Dharmendar and abandons the performance.

For Anaar, the event has been horrible – but much worse is to come, because Dharmendar remembers little, and seems to think that he can still woo Anaar into becoming his mistress. From here on, the film comes into its own, with Anaar refusing Dharmendar's sexual overtures – couched first as half-hearted apology and then as romantic entreaty, before transforming, in the blink of an eye, to a threat to her life and liberty if she does not submit. One moment he is trying to wheedle Anaar, calling himself a Devdas wasting away for love of her; the next minute he's having his goons hunt her down on foot in Aarah's backstreets.

But it is not just Dharmendar who yoyos between these ways of seeing. Das's finely-wrought screenplay makes clear how often an attractive woman must deal with men wanting either to worship her, or rub her nose in the dirt. Sex and sexuality is so repressed a topic in India that a woman who revels in her own erotic appeal is treated as a devi (goddess) if she smiles upon a man – but must be denounced as a randi (whore) if she doesn't – or god forbid, if she smiles upon whomsoever she chooses.

Anaar, too, has her share of worshippers: the spellbound shopkeeper who presses free lipsticks upon her in exchange for listening to couplets he's composed for his cross-caste love; the loveable studio agent (Ishtiyak Khan) who helps her out in Delhi (and is called Hiraman Tiwari, in a sweet homage to Raj Kapoor's innocent tangawalla in Teesri Kasam); and finally, the waif Anwar, whom Anaar shelters, and who later becomes her support. But what the film does superbly is to reveal how little it can take for the same man to switch on the other gaze. So the timid, sweet Anwar can begin to display signs of 'manly' control, while Dharmendar's once-abusive henchman is quick to fall at Anaarkali's feet, once she assumes the status of his boss's woman.

It is nearly impossible, in such a skewed world, to escape the alternative handcuffs of worship and control. Anaarkali succeeds, for now, and we applaud happily.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Mar 2017.

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