A tawdrily attired Anaarkali shimmies into a shop. She asks for a pink lipstick. The shopkeeper fishes out a bunch of colours and offers them to her, all for free. This man, like every other male in the boondocks of Aarah, is a big fan of the street singer-dancer known for her racy, uninhibited numbers. Anaarakali, as the troupe's compere hollers at the start of every performance, is "hamari desi tandoor, Angrezi mein oven". But in the glare of the bright spotlight, life isn't a joyride for the protagonist of Anaarkali of Aarah, a film with a promising premise that doesn't unfortunately yield the expected cinematic riches.
The girl is scalded by the very heat she generates with her raunchy, raucous songs aimed at crazed, entirely male audiences. One not-so-fine day, an untoward incident halts a show. In its aftermath, a slighted VIP hounds the girl out of Aarah.
Anaarkali suffers the inevitable fate of a small-town female songstress: she is seen as an easily available woman. She might have the whole of Aarah eating out of her hand, but she inhabits a dodgy universe where fun and fear, patronage and predation, are separated by a line so thin as to be nearly invisible.
Every time the spirited and sassy Anaarkali steps on stage to belt out a smutty number with all the come-hither gusto at her disposal, the fragile shell that protects her from unwanted attention is just a prurient poke away from being breached. Her "sar jhukake ishq waala aadaab" is always in danger of being misconstrued.
All along, the film makes the right noises about putting sexual boors in their place. But Anaarkali of Aarah, written and directed by first-timer Avinash Das, opts for rather unsubtle, and therefore disappointingly tepid, means to drive home its point. It is a well-intentioned effort offset irretrievably by middling writing and erratic treatment.
Anaarkali of Aarah begins with a death. A woman performs at a wedding. Her daughter watches. A drunk man, armed with a rifle, drags the crooner down from the stage. He sways unsteadily with her. We hear a gunshot and the screen goes blank. When the film fades in again, 12 years have elapsed and the daughter is now the winsome Anaarkali.
For a film that begins with a bang and is so unusual in terms of its setting and dramatis personae, Anaarkali of Aarah springs no major surprises. It merely trundles along, riding largely on the back of clichés and contrivances built around facile conflicts.
Lead actress Swara Bhaskar is impressive no doubt. She gives the titular role her very best, turning the harried small-town diva into a rounded rebel who evokes instant empathy. The film is superficial and overly simplistic because the men in this beleaguered woman's life aren't fleshed out sufficiently.
Anaarkali of Aarah is a hinterland version of Pink, minus the highfalutin legalese. The female protagonist is both vibrant and vulnerable because of the titillating songs that are her stock in trade. When she faces a physical assault on stage by an inebriated, politically connected man, she refuses to be cowed down. And thus begins her back-to-the-wall battle to shame the offender and reclaim her dignity.
The film flounders because none of the male characters, not even the pivot of the troupe (Pankaj Tripathi) or the lecherous vice-chancellor of a university (Sanjay Mishra) or the ardent Anaarkali fan who helps her get a break in Delhi (Ishtiaq Khan), jumps out of the script and assumes a life and logic of his own.
That apart, the director falters in creating convincing physical spaces. Aarah never quite feels like a living, breathing location. Especially jarring is the university campus - no classes ever seem to take place here. It looks more like a rundown mofussil club frequented by depraved and wealthy wastrels.
Sanjay Mishra's presence in this film is a case of horrible miscasting. The role of the university VC is clearly out of the gifted actor's comfort zone. He is unable to fathom whether he should exude gravitas and menace or soften the two impulses with dashes of comicality. The script gives him no helpful clues. The result is an unseemly hotchpotch that does no justice to Mishra's proven skills.
Pankaj Tripathi, usually a powerhouse, is also grossly under-served by the screenplay. It traps him in a terribly imprecise, ill-defined role. He is like a bird flapping its wings wildly but unable to take flight.
Anaarkali of Aarah is the kind of film that you want to applaud, especially on account of the concerns that it articulates. But it leaves you deeply dissatisfied. It could have done with much more passion and flair. It is worse than a misfire. It doesn't fire at all despite the magnificently full-blooded pivotal performance from Swara Bhaskar.
But let's cut writer-director Avinash Das some slack. He knows what he is talking about. If only he had managed to pack a little more zip and zing into the exercise, the whiplash would have hit home harder. But this critic, despite the disappointment that Anaarkali of Aarah is, will look forward to Das' next outing. There is a better film hiding in him.