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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Chotushkone (2014)

chotushkone poster

I love this film! It’s such a perfect integration of story, characters, location and music that unfolds seamlessly, often unexpectedly, to deliver an excellent dramatic thriller. Srijit Mukherji’s screenplay weaves in and out of present and past with a story of four separate directors en route to meet a director with ideas for a new film. It’s clever and engaging, even more so on second or third watch when it’s easier to appreciate the detailed clues that were missed first time around. Chotushkone won several National Awards and is one of those ‘must-see’ films that really is much better onscreen than it sounds on paper.

My favourite thing about Chotushkone is cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s use of light and colour to enhance every scene. The film starts in sepia, but there are portions in black and white, and when the directors each narrate their idea for a screenplay, the action takes place coloured red, blue and green. Each scene has so much detail that I keep pausing my DVD to fully appreciate the set dressing and how appropriate each element is for that stage of the drama. Literally every time I watch this film I spot something new!

It’s also gorgeously filmed throughout. Every shot has wonderful balance of light and shade and Sudeep uses interesting combinations of objects and shadows to frame his subjects. In fact, the first time I watched the film I almost lost track of the plot as I was so invested in the look of the film, but fortunately the actors are all fantastic and the story becomes completely gripping after the slow build-up that introduces the characters. It’s a wonderful visual feast, but the film also excels in the soundtrack with Anupam Roy providing beautiful music that fits the screenplay and enhances the action without ever becoming intrusive or distracting. This is my favourite, but all of the songs are lovely and I’ve been addicted to the soundtrack since watching the film.

The film opens with a suicide set in an opulently decorated house that appears to have fallen on hard times. The furnishings are exquisite but the wall paper is peeling and there is a general air of decay. The staging of these opening scenes is beautifully done, starting with the elegant writing of a letter using a fountain pen and ending with the discovery of the body, with sepia tint delivering a timelessness to the images. It’s not clear whether the opening events take place prior to the next scene, or after, or even if they are related at all, given that the story moves on to different characters in a bar and is shot in black and white. However gradually all the pieces come together and the different components of the story build into a comprehensive whole.

Joyobroto (Parambrata Chatterjee) is a young film maker who has negotiated with Mr Gupta (Koushik Ganguly) to produce a new film composed of four separate short stories by different directors. The only condition is that each film has to address the theme of death. Joy approaches three older and well-known directors to take part in the exercise, although in some cases it takes his considerable powers of persuasion to get agreement. Trina Sen (Aparna Sen) was once a famous actor but has moved on to directing films, Sakyo (Goutam Ghose) is an award-winning director of art-house films while Dipto (Chiranjeet Chakraborty) has made a couple of commercial potboilers after he too had a career as a cinematographer and then actor. As they start their road-trip together the previous relationships between Trina, Dipto and Sakyo become clear and the possibility for disaster looms large given the old arguments that still scent the air.

As the four travel they each relate their individual stories for the film. Each story is good as a tale that involves death, but there is plenty of symbolism in each as well (Dipto’s protagonist who is literally ‘dying’ for a cigarette, when all the while there is the censor’s ‘smoking kills’ message at the bottom of the screen) and Srijit appears to be telling a series of stories within the concept of making a movie which itself is composed of a series of stories. It’s a veritable labyrinth as the black and white portions of the film are also telling another story – that of Nilanjana (Payel Sarkar), Ritwik (Indrasish Roy) and Amitava (Rahul Banerjee) who are also all making a film together. The beauty of Chotushkone is that this all makes sense within the concept of the overall plot, while gradually the big picture emerges from the different strands. There are a couple of side stories that add more background to the characters – that of Trina and her husband (Barun Chandra), Sakyo and his daughter who is pushing him to make his latest deadline and Dipto’s son (Anindya Chatterjee) who is at loggerheads with his father about Dipto’s romance with Mimi (Koneenica Banerjee), a woman half his age.

The cast are all excellent and fit into their roles well. Aparna Sen has a world-weary attitude that suits her character while Chiranjeet Chakraborty and Goutam Ghose play well off each other as the two friends with quite different attitudes to film-making. Each has their own foibles that make them realistic characters and their easy relationship speaks of their long-time friendship. Parambrata Chatterjee is superb as the glue that holds everyone together despite the bickering and complaining, and perfectly suits the persona of a younger film director trying to keep his idea alive while dealing with three quite prickly personalities. Koushik Ganguly also stands out in his small but effective role as the film’s potential producer, particularly at the end of the film when all is revealed.

This really is a beautifully made film that tells a good story using a novel approach. There is plenty of sub-text to chew over on repeated viewings while good performances from the cast ensure the film is engaging at all levels from start to finish. It does start rather slowly, but the intricate framing of each scene helps keep the film interesting and once the main characters are introduced the film is completely mesmerising. I thoroughly enjoyed Chotushkone and the more I’ve read about the actors and the industry the more I appreciate just how much Srijit Mukherji has managed to fit in to his screenplay. Highly recommended for a detailed and engrossing thriller that ticks all the boxes. 5 stars.

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.