CultureCinema A Feminist Reading Of Anaarkali Of Aarah – A Celebration Of Feminine Agency

A Feminist Reading Of Anaarkali Of Aarah – A Celebration Of Feminine Agency

Anaarkali Of Aarah is a triumphant assertion of female agency and sexuality. However, we need more diversity in the portrayal of Muslim women.

A movie that celebrates consent, that too of a Muslim woman, has got to be celebrated, right? As far as I can see, we are all singing hosannahs to Anaarkali of Aarah. Once we are done with our hallelujahs, can we please sit down and, ahem, have a heart to heart about it?

The movie Anaarkali Of Aarah is the story of the adversities faced by the eponymous dancer-singer and how she triumphs in the face of the vicissitudes she faces when she is harassed by a local politican and ridiculed by the police. She performs in and around the town of Aarah in Bihar. Kudos to the script and director for evoking a sense of authentic Bihar backwaters. You’re transported to small town India as the story unfolds.

Anaarkali of Aarah 2017

Cast: Swara Bhaskar, Pankaj Tripathy, Sanjay Mishra

Director: Avinash Das

Anaarkali belongs to the lowest rung of the social order. She is doubly disadvantaged – not just by gender, but also because she belongs to the Muslim religious minority. To top it off, she also freely occupies public space. Where spaces outside the home are assumed to be exclusively masculine by default, she treads on dangerous territory. In a story set in a mofussil town of what looks like Bihar, here is a disaster waiting to happen. And it does.

Almost with the opening, the movie delivers a sickening punch to the gut as a woman dancer – Anaarkali’s mother – is shot dead during a public performance. You remember the familiar debilitating horror grip you. You remind yourself to breathe. 

A woman in public is assumed to be sexually available. Women who dance at public events and semi-private ones like weddings are called “randi” which translates to “prostitute”, even though they are only dancers, not selling sex. It is a word Anaar herself repeatedly uses through the movie, leaving behind a trail of shattered notions of what is proper and expected.

Her character is poised between what is considered decent, and that which is disreputable, between the desired and the desirable, and in this the movie has pulled off a tough balancing act. A gentle reminder, dear reader: underpinning this celebration of balance are our notions of what a woman’s sexuality is all about.

Let’s get back to Anaar’s mother who is shot dead early on in the movie. Here is a depiction of how mindless violence is the foundation of toxic masculinity and how, every so often, women just happen to get stuck as casualties in men’s show of power.

The women who dance in public are obviously supposed to have set aside their honour simply by occupying a public space. Men’s izzat (honour) rests in the bodies of their female family members. If unmarried, a woman must be a virgin and after marriage, a chaste wife.

The male gaze is what helps them thrive. And herein lies the contradiction. Where would Anaar be if it weren’t for the lascivious glances and adoring audiences of men who are the patrons for her raunchy numbers, innuendo-laden as they are. In a small town, her performances are at the biggest crowd pullers.

The movie is replete with foot-tapping numbers which the trailer itself proclaims, are full of double entendres. One of  the most suggestive song in the movie is the one Anaar sings, as the top dog in town, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the local college – played to the hilt by Sanjay Mishra – jumps up on stage. Anaar first tries to continue her performance and with improvised stage movements, tries to resist his attempts at molestation. But the VC is drunk, out of control and dogged. She finally walks off stage and is soon on the run, to escape being prosecuted. In a story familiar to us, the underdog must run when the various arms of the State collude.

The most interesting portrayals are of the three men in Anaar’s life. Her co-performer, Rangeela, played by Pankaj Tripathi, treats her with a familiarity which leads you to believe they are lovers, till their falling out. He’s then revealed to have a wife. The other devoted fan, Anwar, is at first a stalker. Can we please have a movie without a stalker who turns out to be a good guy? *eye-roll* Anwar, is Anaar’s companion in her run from the law, but soon starts to get possessive and tries to control her.

Both men imagine, from the intimacies they share, to have a hold over her. Anaar soon disabuses them of the notion. She calls the shots, and she is in complete control of her sexuality. Mah life, mah rulez, yo! So far, so good.

Let’s take a deeper look though.

In most cultures, often, in order to show the supremacy of one group over the other, to assert power, people indulge in classifying a set of people as “the Other” or as “not one of us”. In so doing it helps a group to dismiss “the Other” as being sub-human, and therefore less worthy of respect and dignity.

In the Indian nationalist discourse which was largely dependent on a Hindu religious identity, the “Othering” of Muslims has played a major factor. This “Othering” was further perpetuated through the bodies of Muslim women and it has only become louder in the current climate with the right wing Hindu supremacist party in power. In 2015 the ‘Bahu Lao, Beti Bachao’ campaign run by Bajrang Dal, a group that is part of the right-wing Sangh Parivar, was created to convert Muslim women to Hinduism, by encouraging Hindu men to marry them. As I write this, the streets and parks of UP have been handed over to the so-called anti-Romeo squads which track down and beat up unmarried couples. This is nothing but an attempt to curb “Love Jihad”, an assumption that Muslim men are out to convert Hindu women by “trapping” them in affairs and forcing them to marry.

The body of the Muslim woman has been sexualized in the public discourse as hyper fertile, weak and meek, and by the hypersexualized depictions of the courtesan or tawaif in Bollywood since ages. This sexualization is part of the Othering process that marginalizes them, and casts them out of mainstream Indian conceptions of “womanhood”.

Anaar is played with aplomb by Swara Bhaskara who shone even in bit roles and was absolutely thrilling in “Nil Battay Sannata”. The movie turned into a surprising success by word of mouth publicity, garnering a hit at the box office.

Ishtiyak Khan, playing Hiraman in a bit role, also shines. Yet another male who’s not given a back story, his circumstances or history not revealed. The male characters in this film are portrayed the way women are in most movies, given peripheral roles, except for the sexualization and objectification.

Ultimately Anaar triumphs, teaching us a lesson in consent – a popular flavour of the season in Bollywood right now. Yet this is a movie lacking women characters, specially in speaking roles. The one woman with a modicum of a speaking role, is a landlady with a foul tongue who badmouths Anaar. She’s portrayed as a gossip. The other woman with a bit part is the daughter-in-law of a political flunkey. She is depicted as not being averse to exchanging sexual favours in return for a job, playing up yet another trope of popular culture. These women seem incongruous, when compared to the apparently liberated Anaar who lives on her own terms, a character we are not used to seeing on our screens. We’re never sure who is the odd one out, Anaar, or the other women, who play to type.

In the climax, Anaar finally wins the support of two “respectable” women, the VC’s wife and his daughter who “validate” her. A woman in the public eye can’t survive without the endorsement of the honourable woman, the first-time director Avinash Das seems to tell us.

Please indulge me as I assert that we need many more portrayals of Muslim women in mainstream Hindi cinema, but could we please focus on the multitude of professions in which they are excelling? The Muslim-woman-as-tawaif has been done to death, and it’s 2017! Move on!

As we celebrate the idea of consent shoved on us by a not very with-it male director, let us remember the context too. Not many Anaars probably sail through life this successfully. Say a little prayer for them.

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