Anaarkali of Aarah

Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah is a powerful and highly entertaining film with a strong thread of feminism in action, not just in speeches. And Anaarkali is a kickarse woman who compelled my full attention.

Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) is a folk performer, singing and dancing her way through innuendo laden songs for appreciative male audiences. She is loud and proud in both appearance and action, and genuinely loves what she does. She lives in a small world in a small town, and is happy and confident strolling the streets and turning men’s heads as she sashays by. But one of her troupe’s patrons, Dharmender Chauhan the VC of the local university (Sanjay Mishra), is obsessed with Anar. At a high profile police event he gets dangerously drunk and invades the stage. Anaarkali and her ‘friend’ and business associate Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi) try to put Dharmender off but he persists in trying to rape her on stage. She is frightened and angry, and slaps him hard, adding a mouthful of curses for good measure. Can a woman really get away with defending her honour when the men around her don’t see that she has any? Can a woman assert autonomy over her body when men don’t think she has the right to say no?

Mild spoiler – in this film world, she might. But even if you know the ending this journey is really worth taking.

Anar is a wonderful character and Swara Bhaskar is brilliant in the role. Anaarkali is not a fallen woman, she doesn’t need or want redemption. She’s a star in her particular field, and she thrives on the glitz and attention. When Anaarkali struts down the lanes near her home she tosses her hair and sways for her public. When she’s at home she’s foul mouthed and a bit goofy.

Anaarkali is an astute judge of character and mood, usually knowing when to be abrasive and when to simply listen and let the situation deflate. And then she realises that there is such a thin line between acclaim and notoriety and the line is drawn by men in power. Bhaskar delivered a layered performance, showing Anar’s stagecraft, her public persona, and her domestic side and the fluidity with which she switches between them. When Anaarkali lost her home and her troupe I felt her profound and debilitating grief. But Anaarkali is a strong and pragmatic woman. There is no attempt to paint her as a virgin prostitute who only dances. She is frank about her industry but retains the right to choose who, when, and where she has sex with a client. There are men in her life but far from waiting for a white knight, Anaarkali was pretty set on rescuing herself. I might want to be friends with Swara but I’d probably be slightly scared of Anar’s acerbic wit.

It was telling that when the police went into damage control, it was to protect the VC not uphold the legal rights of an assault victim. And also telling that the men near rioting when the show was cut short were not protesting in support of Anaarkali, they were furious because they were denied a spectacle. She is accused of bringing about her own downfall due to arrogance. Nobody seems interested in telling the VC not to be so rapey or allowing her to file charges against him. Sadly I didn’t find much of this to be a stretch of the imagination. Sanjay Mishra is vile as Dharmender, but in a very restrained and slimily real way. The VC’s entitlement is sometimes breathtaking. He only sees Anaarkali as a mirror of his own desires, and nothing is more important to him than his own gratification. He is so convinced she must submit to him, ostensibly because he is crazed with love but really because he is so rich and influential she has no right to refuse. Mishra’s scenes with Anaarkali seethe with anger (mutual), fear (hers), and thwarted desire (his).

Rangeela is an interesting character. He defends Anaarkali but will sell her out in a heartbeat. I tried to believe that was to protect the rest of his motley troupe but even so. When she needed him, he was a weasel. Pankaj Tripathi is solid in the role although I felt maybe some of his character’s story might have been cut and that I wanted to know more about his relationship with Anar. Mayur More is sweet and funny as Anwar. He adores Anaarkali and music. Their dynamic is more cute and flirty, with Anaarkali taking a while to see him as a young man rather than a kid. He tries to step up to look after her but he respects her wishes when she wants to resume singing. Hiraman is a devoted fan of Anar’s and he helps her get her mojo back through a recording gig. I really loved Ishteyak Khan’s performance. He was subtle but radiated love and pride when he was near Anar. His silent and dogged anti-bromance with Anwar was also fun to watch. It’s a really good ensemble cast with everyone fully inhabiting their roles.

Avinash Das has written a strong screenplay and delivered it with an assured visual interpretation. The lighting and composition underscores the drama but isn’t so stylised that it distracts from the performers. This is a small and vivid world and beautifully realised. The story rockets along but there is room for some directorial flair with a nice loop from an early flashback to the finale. Whoever cast the playback singers did an awesome job as the tones and style matched so well I never once thought it was anyone but Swara Bhaskar singing. The songs are full of double entendres that are sexual and also relate to the social position of a woman in Anaarkali’s job. When she sings her final song it is an awesome middle finger to the patriarchy.

I’d had this film on my list to write about for a while but then conversations with a Twitter friend and reading Anu’s review seemed to be a sign to get a wriggle on.

See this for a genuinely female centric film that has a fairly sound feminist position, and a rousing good yarn into the bargain. Swara Bhaskar is fearless and imbues Anar with an unapologetic sensuality and strength of purpose. 5 stars!

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Qarib Qarib Singlle

Jaya (Parvathy) is a single woman, busy with her career and an array of friends who rely on her for help. She has been a widow for around ten years, and there is something both wistful and a little salacious in the way she notices signs of sex all around her. She wants to move on but is a bit conservative when it comes to dating publicly, and is wary of losing someone she loves again. But she sets up a profile on a dating site and one response stands out amongst all the sleazy ones. She sets up a coffee date with Yogi (Irrfan, still so fancy he needs no last name). He is a scruffy and unpretentious bloke who seems to say whatever is on his mind. Yogi is convinced his exes are all still pining for him while Jaya is pining for her dead husband. Through one of the few really clunky exchanges in the film, they agree to go on a roadtrip and visit his exes. They can get to know each other on their co-funded separate bedrooms holiday, and Yogi believes Jaya will come to see what a catch he is.

Parvathy is impressive as Jaya, initially quite stitched up but revealing more of her hopes and desires as she opens up under Yogi’s impulsive influence. Jaya is a career woman and Parvathy is authoritarian as a hardarse manager but in Jaya’s personal life she shows the fragility and caution that has stopped her from really moving on. She has wonderful chemistry with Irrfan and as she warms to Yogi I found I was seeing him differently too. In some scenes the sparkle of laughter in her eyes could be genuine amusement at his outrageous behaviour. When Jaya lets herself go she is physically braver than Yogi, while he seems socially and emotionally more robust. Jaya often interacts directly with the camera and Parvathy is amazingly skilled at acknowledging that we are watching and aware without breaking out of Jaya’s character. Jaya finds herself tagging along with a carefree and chaotic guide, and between the stress, fights, and hilarity she reconnects with life. That sounds grand but this is an intimate and very personal story.

Irrfan is charming and funny as Yogi – who could almost be a Manic Pixie Dream Manchild (MPDMc). He is entirely comfortable with himself, and has a deep and possibly delusional confidence in his charms. Yogi needs to let go of his past too although he doesn’t recognise his nostalgia as toxic. He is a catalyst if not a wrecking ball. Yogi can’t help himself from going off on tangents and has a very lax approach to time management and logistics. And I won’t start on his fashion sense. He would have driven me mad. But he is a kind and intelligent man, and Jaya responds to his curiosity about her. Some of the antics are clearly just for the sake of having something go wrong at that point to force Jaya off onto another tangent, and Yogi bears the burden of the poor decision making based comedy. But Irrfan plays his scenes with Jaya with wit and warmth and only a few lapses into acting school improv shenanigans. As an MPDMc Yogi did get on my nerves but I was relieved and happy when Jaya called him out on those behaviours, and also appreciated his response. If, like me, you liked Irrfan in Piku or Life in a Metro, then I think you’ll enjoy this performance too.

The extended trip and varied transport allows for other characters to enter and leave the story without taking up too much space. Also I greatly enjoyed the dashboard decoration of one taxi, fake grass and all. Yogi does spend some time with his exes but the glimpses of their lives look like they are all well and happy, not hung up on him at all. Neha Dhupia is all glamour and self-assurance as his legendary second love. I also enjoyed the direct life advice from the taxi driver played by…someone whose name I have neglected to note.

The story meanders across India from Mumbai to Rishikesh and Gangtok and elsewhere, using planes, trains, taxis and autos. Tanuja Chandra and Eeshit Narain manage to make every location look breathtakingly beautiful and instantly recognisable without resorting to tourist brochure clichés. The golden afternoon light and conversations under the stars create an atmosphere that keeps things anchored in the world and avoids feeling stagey in the dialogue heavy scenes. The music is largely used in the background but when made a focus it seemed that the lyrics were pertinent to the drama. There are no big production numbers and that is just perfect for this film.

The mechanism to get the roadtrip underway was highly contrived, the material is a bit thin in places, and the ending is a little too rushed. But the journey in the middle is charming, infuriating, and ultimately uplifting largely due to the excellent work by Parvathy and Irrfan. One to see if you like a sensible and respectful approach to your rom coms.

Ittefaq (2017)

Ittefaq poster

In this 2017 version of Ittefaq, Abhay Chopra takes elements from the 1969 original and spins them into a police procedural that ticks most of the boxes. There are two conflicting stories that police detective Dev (Akshaye Khanna) has to unravel to find the identity of the killer, but he only has three days to solve the puzzle before he has to let his main suspect walk free. There is a good amount of suspense in this stylish thriller and a better than average story, but it’s Akshaye Khanna as the determined detective that makes Ittefaq worth watching on the big screen.

The film starts with a car chase as famous UK writer Vikram Sethi (Sidharth Malhotra) attempts to escape the Colaba police force, who want to bring him in for questioning over the suspicious death of his wife. They finally catch him in an apartment belonging to a lawyer, Shekhar and his wife Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), but when the police arrive they find Shekhar has been murdered and Vikram is standing over the body. Dev (Akshaye Khanna) is called in to investigate the death of Vikram’s wife Katherine (Kimberley Louisa McBeath) and Shekhar’s murder, with Vikram the prime suspect.

Vikram and Maya both have quite different stories of what happened in the apartment and each version is shown in Rashomon style flashback as Dev asks the relevant questions. Maya tells a story of being held in her apartment by a violent and agitated Vikram before her husband arrived, saving her but ultimately being murdered by Vikram. Vikram on the other hand explains how he was injured after his car crashed and was looking for help, but Maya acted suspiciously from the start. It’s an interesting puzzle that relies on the credibility of each witness and how believable their respective stories appear.

The first half builds suspense as Vikram and Maya recount their version of events while the police search for the truth. For a change, the police aren’t the usual vicious thugs or bumbling incompetents, although there is some comedy relating to the police officers who are first on scene at the murder. However, the comedy here is well thought out and gives the subordinates personality that ultimately makes the film more interesting – making tea at a crime scene, snacking on soaked almonds and joking about a guard dog are all relatively normal activities that contrast with the strange events of the crime.  While Dev barks out questions and mulls over the evidence with the forensics technician, his police officers are changing the light bulb in Vikram’s cell and discussing their views on the murders – which all helps to cloud the truth. The various red herrings and clues scattered through the dialogue work well to further deepen the mystery and the addition of a suicide potentially linked to Vikram and his wife add more potential suspects that Dev has to investigate.

After a good first half, the second has a few more issues as a number of holes start to appear in the narrative. Dev’s piecemeal questioning of Vikram and Maya over the three days doesn’t stand-up to expected police procedure while a possible witness in Maya’s maid seems to go nowhere, but despite these shortcomings, the final outcome remains in doubt right up to the climax and big reveal. Part of this is due to the excellent poker faces from Siddharth and Sonakshi whenever they are interviewed by Dev. Both seem equally credible, and the switch between the two respective views in the flashbacks muddies the waters further. Sonakshi appears furtive and ill at ease during Vikram’s account, while in her own flashback sequences she is every bit the terrified woman held hostage in her apartment. Siddharth too is excellent as he switches between violent intruder and frantic victim while appearing completely sincere and totally devastated by his wife’s death during his interrogation. Of the two, Sonakshi’s character has less dialogue and isn’t as well developed, but both actors are good in their respective roles and manage to make their characters a believable witness and a plausible suspect depending on the viewpoint.

Akshaye Khanna is wonderful as Dev, playing the character fairly straight but with the intensity that’s expected from any fictional detective. Abhay Chopra gives him some background too by adding in a few crucial moments between Dev and his wife (Mandira Bedi) that allow a more human side to his character and lighten the mood when the drama threatens to get too repetitive. Akshaye also gets some of the best dialogue which works to ensure Dev appears as a detective who is smart enough to solve the crime despite the dual handicaps of his less than stellar associates and the restricted time he has to work on the case. It’s great to see Akshaye back in a role that plays to his strengths and he is charismatic and convincing as Dev, while ensuring that the focus is on the investigation, rather than simply the character.

Michal Luka helps create atmosphere by some excellent use of lighting, both in the flashback sequences and during the investigation, while the background music from Tanishk Bagchi adds to the mood without being intrusive. The running time is fairly short too at only 107 minutes, which means Abhay Chopra has to move the story along and establish the characters quickly, all of which helps to add tension although ultimately not quite as much as the story needs. The end too isn’t quite as satisfying as expected, although it is surprising with a clever break in the case that comes from a more unexpected direction. Overall Ittefaq does keep you guessing and although you may not be on the edge of your seat throughout, it’s still a respectable enough thriller with solid performances and good twists. Worth watching as a reminder of just how good Akshaye Khanna can be and then wonder why on Earth we don’t get to see him more often!