Swara Bhaskar in the poster for the film
At the end of Anarkali of Arrah, a film you should've heard of but may not have, I found myself, surprisingly, crying. Not because it has a sad ending - it has a fantastically rousing one. I realised I had been holding my breath, because ever since Anarkali, played here by a million watt Swara Bhaskar, is sexually assaulted in public by a university Vice Chancellor, played with pitch perfect self-regard by Sanjay Mishra, I was waiting for the film to become yet another excuse for patronising women and flattening them into victims, while lauding male filmmakers and male protagonists as saviours.
I think I cried with relief that this didn't happen.
Anarkali Of Arrah is engaging, its exuberant songs free of the self-aggrandising, "see my cool Bhojpuri inflected soundtrack and aren't the provincial people of my own country exotic and quaint" world cinema bulls**t. It never loses its humour and expansiveness, even in the hardest of moments. It is also truly a film about consent because here consent isn't only about rape and assault but the entire universe of desire and a life of choice.
Anarkali's raunchy songs, her blingy cold-shoulder kameezes, her full-lipped, curvy hipped presence, her friends with benefits relationship with her manager, the fact that his wife runs off with the milkman - all of it is an evocation and affirmation of the naturalness of erotic life, seeing sex not as an exception, but as a part of life, and Indian culture, in myriad big and small ways.
I think I cried because, as a woman, if I express dissatisfaction or critique of a so-called women's issue film, I am made to feel churlish and demanding, by acquaintances, friends and strangers. "Arre, at least it did this" people will say. I think I cried because I realised somewhere I had begun to believe this was my lot - in movies, life and love - this kanjoos, male-appeasement version of consent, not a full-bodied, full-blooded celebration of pleasure and consent.
I cried with relief that yes, it is possible for a male director to imagine this film, this woman who is defined not by a wound or shame or virtue, but desire - artistic, erotic, sensory, self-defined; who is preoccupied not with sexual trauma but living a life she loves. That we could see men on screen, with matching, non-judgemental complexity - some jerks, some weak, sometimes perpetrators, sometimes victims of patriarchal power structures, but also often subverting that structure. The tender Anwar, the gorgeously compassionate Hiraman, the comradely record producer in Delhi, defined love not as control, but an enabler, allies to Anarkali in her quest for a life she loves. There hasn't been such a film since Rangeela.
The end of the film is a gutsy, mythic tandav, not of revenge, but assertion. I cried with relief that I didn't have to be cravenly grateful for a patriarch pinkly saying "No Means No" (though sure, it's good). Here, instead, was Anarkali's electric dialogue "ab suniye randi ki Na" (listen now to the whore say No).
At the end, as a woman who loves art and red lipstick and romance, as a woman who loves to live, I wanted to stand up and say Yes! Yes! A million times, on my own terms, Yes! That's also what we mean when we say consent.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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