Swara Bhaskar's Anaarkali Of Aarah And Shubhashish Bhutiani's Mukti Bhawan: Lockdown Blues Chasers Part 54

Here's revisiting two remarkable films in the 54th edition of our Lockdown Blues Chasers. Swara Bhaskar's Anaarkali Of Aarah and Shubhashish Bhutiani's Mukti Bhawan

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Swara Bhaskar's Anaarkali Of Aarah And Shubhashish Bhutiani's Mukti Bhawan: Lockdown Blues Chasers Part 54
Anaarkali Of Aarah(2017): Nothing in this unexpected storm-trooper of a film has prepared you for its high-velocity energy and fervent statement on female sexuality. Without exaggeration Anaarkali Of Aarah (AOA) is the surprise of the season. It is stunning in thought, spellbinding in plot and utterly gripping in the way the story of a small-town dancer-singer’s adventures in lecher-land unfolds.

AOA is many things at the same time. It is a shimmering sun-soaked mirror of smalltown values wherein every sneeze or fart is noted and evaluated across the communities . And yet the story of Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskara, 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.

So here’s the simmering seething provocative scenario. Anaarkali , the smalltown 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(Sanjai Mishra) decides to take the ‘Vice’ too seriously.

He jumps on stage to molest the dancer ,as her performing partner (played with poignant panache by Pankaj Tripathi) watches in muted horror.All hell breaks loose thereafter. While the legs of Aarah seethe in anticlimactic rage, Anaarkali gives them a long rope to hang themselves with.

In one sequence Swara strides looking crushed into the vice-ridden chancellor’s den …only to make him look ridiculous at the end of it .And at the end her dance of defiance and exposure is so volatile and so deliciously over-the-top I found myself jumping out of my seat to congratulate Swara.

No walkover, our Anaarkali she takes on the academic lout with such vigour and strength that you will find yourself cheering and clapping for this female hero of these times of sexual ambivalence when men in positions of power misuse their strength to subjugate women in workplaces.

This is a sublime film about the dignity of labour narrated with a raunchy rigour that is often appealing at times exasperating.

Swara Bhaskara hits all the right notes in the shrillest of scenes, bringing out the feisty Bihari woman’s inner strength and an extremely appealing moral grounding even when confronted by the demons of her disreputable profession. There are scenes where Swara is required to push aside all her inhibitions, even her innate feminine grace to appear predatory in her aggression. To her credit Swara sidesteps sleaziness even when she is required to sing and shake her booty to lyrics that would make Yo Yo Honey Singh blush.

But there is a certain grace and dignity to the double meaning thrown out of the erotic dancer’s pelvis thrusts, like fire leaping into the sky. Swara dances to these ribald lyrics with such familiarity and trust , you won’t notice the sexualiy in her thrust. You will see the thirst and dare I say, the innocence, the determination to remain an artiste even when pushed so much against the wall that her body is stiffened and stymied by social order where men have the right to ‘own’ women’s physicality.

In this nimbly -written ode to feminine grace a cheesy dancer who probably moonlights as prostitute tells the predatory man where to get off. It kicks where it hurts the most and it does so without the flourish of schisms. It is a terrific premise for a post-feminist film. Writer-Director Avinash Das doesn’t focus on remaining fashionable about women’s empowerment.

After a point his heroine’s tale has a will of its own. You suspect neither the writer-director nor the actress playing Anaarkali can control her destiny.They, like us, can only move back and gawk in amazement as this astounding female hero takes on the empowered goons co-powered by the louts LaLu Land.

The smell, the feel, the flavor and the emotions of the stiflingly patriarchal small-town is so palpable , you are swept into the vortex of the film’s vibrant vista. Full marks to the film’s cinematographer Arvind Kannabiran for making Aarah and Anarkali seem wedded to one another , and of course Rohit Kumar’s authentic folk songs... They add so much value to the proceedings!…It’s hard to imagine the film without its true-to-life songs and music, and its compelling and credible characterizations that impel the gripping plot into areas of exposition where sexual exploitation is turned inside-out, upside-down.

 A dizzying, combative explosive expose of smaltown hooliganism and a spunky girl’s determination to survive all odds, Anaarkali Of Aarah has a memorable gallery of actors giving the goings-on a sterling push and a bracing vigour with their performances.

I have to single out Sanjai Mishra as the sleazeball academician, Vijay Kumar as his murky cop in crime,Pankaj Tripathi as Anaarkali’s partner on stage, Mayor More as her callow infatuated utterly devoted lover-boy. Nitin Arora as backalley music baron and last but certainly not the least Ishteyak Khan as a small town man who knows how to respect a woman.

These are not just performances. They are classrooms of impeccable characterizations. But above all there is Swara Bhaskar giving what history will record as one of the bravest and most important performances by a female actor in post-modernist Bollywood.

This week, don’t even think about seeing any other film. With this towering achievement around the others don’t stand a ‘ghost’ of a chance.

Mukti Bhawan(2017): 24 is too young to think about death, let alone make a melancholic meditative movie on mortality. Debutante Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan sweeps us into a world where death is not the end but a release into a realm of imperishable freedom. 

Or Moksha, if you will.

Crafted with the care of a jeweller working on a specially intricate piece, the director brings to life the most precious and vital truth about death. As he takes us, along with his two protagonists, on a journey to the holy city of death Varanasi, the film somewhere along its resplendent route to salvation, becomes a treatise on life as defined by the inevitability of death.

Like all the most important directors of the world from Satyajit Ray to Ritesh Batra, Bhutani has a keen eye for detail. The camera of his louringly lucid lenses peers non-judgmentally into the lives of a cramped middle class family in the city where stress is a given and every family failing is finally forgiven. Curiously no one in this family is unhappy. Yet one day the father Daya(Lalit Behl) airily announces he wants to travel to Varanasi to….errr….die.

The patriarchal declaration—to be ignored only at the family’s own risk—is made with no peripheral support from conventional cinematic devices. Tajdar Junaid’s wonderful background score and Manan Mittal’s editing are used so sparingly as to almost seem non-existent. Technique, a fine and invaluable ally in telling a tale as tender , fragile and yet powerful as this,is not used here to aggrandize the characters’ emotions.The feeling grow organically. The moments of Great Cinema creep up on us unannounced.

Perhaps what makes Bhutiani’s film so great is that it doesn’t strive for greatness even in its most sublime moments. The finale when Rajiv carries his father’s body through the narrow lanes of Varanasi while his daughter urges him to discard his grief and embrace the joy of life, is etched in the most crucial lines of life. We cannot miss the celebration of life even in death.

These characters don’t need props to strengthen their emotional case-history. The actors merge into Bhutiani’s narrative without fuss, occupying stifling spaces in Varanasi where people go to die. Mukti Bhawan in the title is a lodge where the elders check in to breathe their last. Once Daya and his overworked son Rajiv(Adil Hussain) check into Mukti Bhawan you would expect the narrative to run its course and just wait for the end.

Director Bhutiani and his dialogue writer Assad Hussain keep our interest in the proceedings alive without straining to get our attention. The easygoing languorous fluency of the narrative never loses its purpose of existence. Indeed it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the film questioning the purpose and the destination of our existence never loses its own purpose or destination.

The actors—if we may call them that—discard their skills to surrender themselves unconditionally to the young director’s vision. Lalil Behl(last seen playing a lowdown scummy patriarch of a crime family in the outstanding debut film Titli) and Adil Hussain ,play with effortless energy against one another as father and son.Adil as an actor never ceases to invoke admiration for just being there without trying to impress.This is what makes his performance so impressive.

Geetanjali Kulkarni(last seen as the lawyer-housewife in that other remarkable film Court by another remarkable debutant Chaitanya Tamhane) subsumes all the tensions of holding up a doddering middle class family without creating a sense of self-important drama around her personality.

Some of the film’s best moments in the wispy narrative are between grandfather Lalit Behl and grand daughter Palomi Ghosh.In this relationship we see how generations can be crossed without tripping over the looming protocol of lineage. There is an understated warmth even in the most stressful relationships in this film.There is a dignity in the squalid stretches of a death home where cries of pain pierce the night.

The family tensions are never stretched out into the narrative. Rather, the drama of disaffection in the domestic matrix is played with such subtle virility and vitality that we don’t ever feel the existential pressures being applied over the character’s life.

Mukti Bhawan is not the first exceptional film to situate its drama of dissuasion in Varanasi. We saw Neeraj Ghaywan touch heights of unassuming glory in Masaan while cruising the Holy ghats. Mukti Bhawan uses Varanasi as both a catalyst and a stress-buster in the overtures of mortality that human nature imposes on life to conquer its fear of death.

Though this film tells us why death need not be feared, I came away from it feeling a profound sense of melancholy. It makes us experience the final futility of life without disrespecting the art of living. And that’s no small achievement.

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