When it comes to the notion of woman empowerment in cinema, the situation in Bollywood is rather ironical. Just like with anything else, Bollywood is seemingly quite eager to ‘cash in’ on the current wave of women’s rights and women’s issues (mostly the misunderstood and corporatized version of it) which result in approximately three rough categories of films. The most obvious are the films about powerful women where the protagonist is quite empowered to begin with and hence the whole project is politically redundant. The next category would be the most recognizable one with their high production values and helmed by major stars. They straight away go for the most superficial meaning of power and the films end up being a celebration of the masculine aspects of the female protagonist such as brute force, etc. And finally there’s a third category which are typically smaller productions which are commonly clubbed together as ‘multiplex films’. They often go for rather unusual premises and are quite conscious about the political stance and its ramifications. However, there has been an unfortunate tendency in these films which invest so much about being politically correct that the overall cinematic experience, in terms of technicalities and aesthetics and the lived experience of viewing suffer a major setback.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) March 28, 2017
Anarkali of Arrah by newcomer Avinash Das is a rather lukewarm instance of a film caught between the counterproductive currents of politics and aesthetics, which are supposed to complement one another in the first place! The film deals with the experiences of Anarkali (Swara Bhaskar) who is something of a celebrity in the small town of Arrah in Bihar. She is a stage performer of a folk based tradition that involves ‘revealing’ outfits, raunchy songs filled with innuendos and suggestive dance moves. Things take a turn when a powerful man who is the VC of the local university (Sanjay Mishra) with strong political ties, attempts to grope and molest her on stage in public. Despite intimidations from the power corridors and being almost ostracized due to the dubious nature of her profession, Anarkali decides to stand up for her rights, seeking justice and in the process bringing forward the nuances of the whole debate concerning the notion of consent.
Given the fact that the two hour long film basically boils down to the idea of Anarkali driving home the fact about consent and that a ‘No’ means No, the entire screenplay looks like an elaborate design where scenes are moving from one to the next just in order to arrive at the climactic one where the point will be made. Right from the prolonged exposition there is no sense of flow between the scenes. And furthermore its copybook sense of political correctness makes the whole experience extremely predictable in terms of narrative. By the time the film is halfway through, it simply went out of focus grappling for a motivated approach. It merely ends up being a bit of social realist drama, a melodrama featuring the memories of Anarkali’s mother and the violence witnessed by her and something of a revenge story, with none of them being explored and justified to the point of satisfaction.
For a film which seeks to address the stark realities of life in an unabashed and direct manner, the film comes across rather unconvincing in its narrative, images and even performances. For instance, the scene where Anarkali goes to the Police Station to file a FIR, her entire body language of conviction and assurance along with her insistent rhetoric, gives it an air of urban awareness which seems extremely contrasting given the setting and the character background. In fact the very decision of casting Swara Bhaskar, who has a kind of urban sophistication reflecting a certain background and upbringing, as a crude, subaltern/rural dancer at times backfires despite the earnestness in her performances. Even the spaces encountered in the films are neither very well established nor fully explored. Be it the idea of a close knit community in a small town with conservative ideals or the liberated and yet aloof and impersonal resonance of a metropolis or a university campus at the heart of the town; everything gets restricted to a few alleys, few buildings or a couple of office spaces. While the narrative travels through all these spaces, the images do not resonate with the ideas behind them; they just remain locations. There’s no sense of dust or grime!
As a final word, and there’s no emphasizing this enough, it must be said that the film and even the filmmaker have their hearts in the right places. They have the courage and intent to address certain issues which otherwise hardly have their days in the sun. But unfortunately, cinema as a medium or a language has its own specificities and it needs a command over them in order to translate an interesting idea into an engaging cinematic experience. Being politically correct is certainly a fundamental first step. But it’s just the first step nonetheless.
Arup Ratan Samajdar