Revisiting Swara Bhasker’s Anaarkali Of Aarah, a bold outlook on female sexuality – Times of India

Debutant director Avinash Das’ film Anaarakali Of Aarah, released on March 24 five years ago. It has been widely acclaimed as one of the finest projections of female sexuality on celluloid in recent times. The film made on a minimal budget and featuring authentic locations, music and actors from North India grabbed the attention of Indian critics and audiences who rightly labeled the film as revolutionary.
It is a shimmering sun-soaked mirror of small town values wherein every sneeze or fart is noted and evaluated across the communities. And yet the story of Anaarkali (Swara Bhasker, spectacular) is also the story of Everywoman, urban or rural.

Lady, you may belong to Aarah or Arizona… there will always be men who feel they’ve the birthright to own your body as and when they wish. Anaarkali, the small-town hottie who makes every guy in town horny, is on stage giving robust voice and body to her raunchy songs—yes, she does dirty dancing for a living and enjoys her job as much as Swara enjoys acting and I enjoy writing—when the town’s prime educational institution’s Vice Chancellor (Sanjay Mishra) decides to take the ‘Vice’ too seriously.
A dizzying, combative explosive expose of small-town hooliganism and a spunky girl’s determination to survive all odds, Anaarkali Of Aarah has a memorable gallery of actors (including the sublime Pankaj Tripathi) giving the goings-on a sterling push and a bracing vigour with their performances.

Swara Bhasker was delighted by the response to her film. She said in a past interaction, “I was a little overwhelmed. Honestly, I didn’t expect such effusive praise. I feel very blessed. I had a lot of faith in the story, in Anaarkali’s journey and in the intention and spirit with which we made the film. I was hopeful that audiences will connect with the tale but I didn’t expect this level of praise and such accolades. I feel both vindicated and blessed.”

Swara said playing such a sexually unapologetic woman was not difficult. “Honestly, the unapologetic nature of Anaarkali was not that difficult, because that’s how I feel as a woman about my own body. Being unapologetic about my body, my sexuality, my life’s decisions is a political belief that as a feminist I strongly espouse. What was difficult for me and my real challenge was to preserve and express the fact that however feisty Anaarkali may seem, she is still vulnerable. Because ultimately she is a woman, and a woman considered not worthy of societal respect in an obviously male-centric patriarchal world. So keeping that vulnerability of Anaarkali alive, was my real challenge.”

Performing the raunchy dances and lip-syncing the double-meaning lyrics was also not that big a challenge for Swara. “The difficult part was not so much the raunchiness of the steps as just the live dancing. I’ve never done a proper Bollywood dance number. And even though I’ve trained in Bharatanatyam, Bollywood dancing as a form is totally different. I think credit should actually go to Shabina Khan for being able to keep the choreography rustic and sensual and yet not vulgar. I think credit also goes to my dance guru Padma Shri Leela Samsonji, whose rigorous training perhaps enabled me to perform raunchy, bawdy and fairly overtly sensual choreography without it being cringe-worthy.”

The raunchy dances were shot in front of actual live audiences. “While shooting sometimes the challenge became the all-male crowd, local to Amroha (where we shot), who I think began to enjoy the shoot as if it were a real show and passed those kinds of comments Some of those comments were pretty vulgar and offensive but I reacted like Anaarkali would. I believe shedding inhibitions is the first step for any actor to get into any character, so that, I guess I did as part of my great faith in this script and this part.”

Anaarkali Of Aarah is an important film, as it reinforces the idea that a woman saying no must be respected even if she is part of an inherently disreputable profession. “This was one of my non-negotiable requests to my director Avinash Das when he was writing. We were certain that there will be no doubt about our intention and message in this film, that it doesn’t matter what the woman does, what her character is, loose or slutty or whatever… She may be a prostitute, but even then consent is paramount. I think our bravest move was to make Anaarkali actually characterless or loose from the point of view of a middle class morality. We offer no explanation, apology or justification for the fact that she may have casual sex, but on her own terms. That makes the whole question of consent totally non-negotiable. I think that is our greatest victory in this film.”

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