By Ila Ananya
Anaarkali of Aarah, writer-director Avinash Das’ debut movie, leaves you incredibly happy when you walk out of the theatre. It seems to have everything — it wastes no time in justifying Anaarkali’s profession (she’s an erotic singer), or why a woman performing songs about sexual desire has every right to fight sexual harassment. Anaarkali’s last scene, one that can hardly be summarised as well as it is performed, is the most satisfying end to a movie that lets women speak.
Swara Bhaskar, who has got two Filmfare Award nominations for her roles in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), and Raanjhanaa (2013), and acted in the widely acclaimed Nil Battey Sannata (2016), makes Anaarkali of Aarah what it is.
Here’s what she told us about the movie, her detailed research, and Bollywood.
How did you become a part of the film, and what was it about the film that made you want to be involved?
I had a strange association with the film, because Avinash [Das] had first offered it to me only to read and comment on, because he knows I’m very open about all matters gender. There was another actress he wanted to give it to. When he said he had somebody else in mind, I remember thinking this guy is crack — I mean who asks an actress to proofread for another.
But I was hooked from the title itself. At that time it was called ‘Anaarkali Aarahwali’. I liked the idea of a world where a woman performs such songs. I also have family in Bihar, so I thought it would be an interesting area to explore.
The first time I read it, I asked Avinash if he would be open to comments, and we talked for four and a half hours. Then I read two more drafts before coming on board. He tried getting another actress but it didn’t work out; I don’t know what happened. After all that, I remember him telling me, “You know, now that you’ve read it so many times…” Now I’m feeling very smug after reading the reviews because I had been very excited by the project and thought it had a lot of potential. My parents are now telling me the movie is done and I should move on, but it matters to me so much because I’ve seen it through from an idea to a proper film.
I did the film because I think of myself as much as a Bollywood audience, as an actor, and Anaarkali is a one-of-a-kind character.
What is it about Anaarkali’s character that excited you?
I thought Anaarkali was an enormously brave character for an Indian-Bollywood story. She is a woman who is an ultra-glamorous, very feisty, singing double meaning songs in the context of a society that isn’t friendly towards female self-expression, or even gender equality, safety – basic shit.
It’s such a deeply patriarchal world, and yet you have this character, and a performance form — a space where these women are in positions, not really of power, but they are cheered and desired. But this is only for the time they’re on stage. The moment they get down, and are walking down a road, they aren’t seen as anything. If anything happens, and there’s a small conflict, everything falls apart and you see the world of that male privilege. I thought it was an interesting fault line that these women live in, and for a movie to exist upon.
Did the script change a lot?
That’s Avinash’s most amazing quality as a writer-director. He wrote more than 20 drafts. He is able to take feedback constructively and convert it into better things.
We did argue a lot but Avinash was very open to me interpreting Anaarkali’s character in the way I wanted. So I would push the envelope with wanting her to be unapologetic. I wanted the audience to be uncomfortable with the morality of our society, simply because she is considered a ‘loose’, and ‘slutty’ girl.
For instance, in one draft of the script we discussed whether Anaarkali and Anwar [who she runs away to Delhi with], were or weren’t involved. I was saying I think they are involved, or that they will eventually be involved, but that’s not the point. I think it is okay to not fully explain that part of her.
What were the other kinds of discussions you had about any of the characters?
We talked a lot about Sanjay’s [Misra] character. He’s a very fine actor, and is so well-loved. My only concern was that all the sympathy could go to him [he plays the powerful VC who molests Anaarkali on stage] at the end of the movie. I didn’t want people coming out of the theatre and thinking, “Arre yaar, aisa bhi kuch nahi kiya tha [what he did wasn’t that big a deal].” Avinash, Ravinder Randhawa, who wrote the songs and is responsible for the gender politics, and I, would often spend time figuring out how to ensure that the sympathy remains with Anaarkali.
The songs in the movie aren’t shot in the same way that item songs are…
Bollywood has used item numbers for glamour. In Anaarkali of Aarah, we’ve given the ‘item girl’ her own world and voice, a story, and a perspective. The songs aren’t shot in the same way as other Bollywood item songs. They’re shot in a very yes-we’re-watching-a-performance way.
One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when Anaarkali runs to Delhi, and says she wants to work.
I loved that moment too. I liked the dynamic of Anwar trying to be a ‘man’ and saying, “No I will work, you won’t sing here.” But he isn’t like that because he’s too young to take on the responsibilities that he thinks he can take on. And Anaarkali is not the person who will stay home either.
There’s actually a scene that was cut. In that scene, Anwar sees that she’s had a break down. Reshma, the house owner, tells him something like, “Obviously she’s going to be like this, she just sits there and does nothing. I told her I’ll get her a job washing dishes or doing jhadoo pocha, but she says, ‘Anwar won’t like it’. What else do you expect if she’s at home all day doing nothing?”
That interaction felt so good to hear, because it was a conversation about a woman wanting to work, and a performer saying she wants to perform.
Did you do a lot of research for the movie?
I went to Aarah looking for women who were involved in this performance. That’s how I found the Orchestra Party [a group of performers]. In some sense, they were the real Anaarkali of Aarah. We became friends, and I started chatting with them. I listened to their songs and recorded them. That’s where I picked up Anarkali’s body language, and language, from observation.
Of course, the songs they sing are a lot more suggestive than anything we sing. I remember when I sat down with someone who knew the language, to try and understand the lyrics. I was like, “Okay then”, and died of shock.
Also, in the movie, Anaarkali has more agency, and I do wonder sometimes if we’ve created a hero, in some sense. But I guess that’s alright as well; it’s a liberty we took for a reason.
What were some of the interesting things you found in your research?
I remember two things that influenced the way I built up Anaarkali.
When I asked Munni Devi, the head of Orchestra Party, to sing some songs, she sang an early number of hers. It was a sweet song about a young bride complaining — one of the lines was like, ‘Mohe chota mila de bhartar, jawani kaise kati.’ ‘Bhartar’ means husband, and the woman is essentially saying “My husband is small.” When I asked her about newer songs, she said, “No, I’ll sing you a Nirgun Bhajan.” My jaw was on the floor. She actually sang me a Nirgun Bhajan. This became a pointer to peg Anaarkali’s character on, because I realised that whatever the world thinks of these women, they see themselves as artists.
The second thing was that I’d wanted to watch them perform. The show was to start at midnight, and Munni Devi had told me to come at 9:30 pm. They were all dressed up; she was in an orange sari, and decked up with a lot of gold from top to bottom. She was looking harassed when I arrived. When I asked her what had happened, she said the girls who were supposed to perform hadn’t shown up. They had left two days ago, for another performance. Munni Devi found that it was because the organisers of the previous event had simply stopped the women from leaving.
I couldn’t imagine this. As an actor and performer, I was used to working on shifts, and that’s what we get paid for. I can’t imagine not being allowed to leave. It made me realise that however feisty Anarkali is, she also lives in a world that’s extremely volatile and male.
What is it like to make Anaarkali of Aarah in an industry that is misogynistic?
I don’t think Bollywood is consciously misogynistic. I think it’s misogynistic and sexist in the blind and unconscious sort of way that I guess all our fathers or brothers are.
Bollywood is like this about so many things, like the stereotyping of South Indians or sardars. It’s a very unthinking approach to what you’re doing. When you’re trying to make a formula film for instance, you’re constantly wondering what will get the audience to laugh or clap. That’s the reason item numbers are there—hasi aaegi, taliyan bajegi. I think it’s changing a bit, but not a lot.
What kind of responses do you expect to the movie?
I did believe it would do well. I’m curious about how men react to it. I felt that one response would be hopeful, and I can see why I’m getting that from a lot of women, but I also hoped it would make some people uncomfortable. In my mind that’s also a good thing. It would encourage questions.