Anarkali of Aarah is Pink for the masses: A milestone in Bollywood's masala realism
Think high, plumb low. Spice the raunchy with the bitter. Welcome to Bollywood's increasingly tendency to offer entertainment with an ugly twist, mix pretty visages into the ugly underbelly, and show life in optimism in a matrix of disturbing truths.
Anarkali of Aarah by debutant director Avinash Das and starring Swara Bhaskar — in an engaging, riveting portrayal of the ups and downs of a folksy, raunchy singer from the boondocks of Bihar — is the latest in a genre that I call "masala realism". By no means is this the first in the genre but marks a new milestone in the way it has taken on a theme challenging to portray for multiplex sensibilities.
Aarah is part of Hindi belt folklore, for its idiomatic Bihari usage, "Aarah hiley, Patna hiley" to describe something earth-shaking. Anarkali is the kind of person who sings songs that the rickshawpullers in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai play to relax during their sweaty struggle for bread and more. When she confronts the lecherous, politically connected vice-chancellor of a vague university of dubious repute to uphold her dignity as a woman, the effect is disturbing. What we get to see is the ugly face of power, corruption and double standards in the heartland of India.
The theme of injustice and oppression in rural India is not exactly new. We can trace it back to Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, Shyam Benegal's classics like Ankur and Nishant, and Govind Nihalani's award-winning Aakrosh that showed the power dynamics of a small town in Maharashtra.
But what is new in the genre of masala realism is that it has killed the distinction between the mainstream and parallel cinema, even as it has picked up new techniques to show deeper truths.
We could argue that Ram Gopal Varma's gangster-cool Satya (1998) is a pioneering signpost in the arrival of masala realism. Directors including Sudhir Mishra in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (made earlier in 1996), Vishal Bhardwaj in Omkara, Dibakar Banerjee in Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, Subhash Kapoor in Jolly LLB and Anurag Kashyap in nearly every movie of his, especially Gangs of Wasseypur have enriched the genre in many ways.
Hollywood's Matin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino has influenced them a lot but it will be unfair to the native Indian genius to see them as rip-offs. What these directors have done with masala idioms such as humour, action, dramatic plots, punch lines and music — the ingredients of a potboiler — is what Rahul Dev Burman did for music in the 1960s and 70s: to bring in an Indian sensibility and sensitivity into their craft influenced by the West.
Anarkali's lehnga-swirling, hip-shaking, lech-magnet songs gets the catcalls and whistles. And by her own admission, as the struggling daughter of a murdered singer, she is no Sati Savitri. She romances her married business partner and earns pocket money with her bodily side-business. But make no mistake, she is a woman who loves her job with a heart and mind of her own as she confronts Dharmendra Chauhan, the vice-chancellor known for his vices.
As his drunken lechery challenges her dignity on stage, she takes him on, leading to a denouement that brings us face to face with the ugly equations of rural Bihar. The seasoned Sanjay Mishra as Chauhan is the perfect foil for Swara Bhaskar as the two spark the chemistry of a negative kind that makes the movie sparkle in colourful punchlines, hard-hitting dialogues and a plot-line that retains a romantic hue in stark realism.
You could cal Anarkali of Aarah the rural equivalent of the blockbuster Pink made last year by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. Anarkali is the rustic counterpart to single, white-collar urban girls even if she is what they call a woman of loose morals.
Except, unlike in Pink where we have the baritone voice of the veteran Amitabh Bachchan giving us the deep truth ("No Means No"), Ms. Bhaskar does her own talking. They hit as hard.
Perhaps harder, as it comes in language not exactly in favour with Pahlaj Nihalani, the censor board chief. In loud and soft tailor-made lines crafted to show courage and grace in a strange mix, the movie says much of what Bachchan did in a courtroom in Pink.
Where the 41-year-old Darbhanga-born director Avinash Das scores, to add more power to the acting power of Bhaskar and Mishra, is in his ability to show smaller characters (such as a Rajasthani-spewing music CD publisher or a Punjabi landlady or a lovelorn Bihari migrant in Delhi) and a panache to capture the gaudy colours of grey characters in the pleasing semi-rural landscape of Bihar or the liberating congestion of metropolitan Delhi.
Grey yet rosy, masala realism has reached new highs in plumbing rural lows.