How did your film come about?
Anaarkali of Aarah has been inspired by Tarabano Faizabadi, from Faizabad, a popular singer of bawdy songs in Bhojpuri. She could have stayed in Faizabad, if she hadn’t been chased out or made to starve. So, she had to flee and live in the slums of Seelampur in Delhi and Andheri, Mumbai. I’ve tried hard to look for her, but I’ve been unsuccessful. In my film, Anaarkali is a woman who has struggled a lot to make a life for herself, on her own terms. Even if she were to be completely on her own, she would still fight, and not fear death.
Your film takes off with a bang, literally. A singer is shot when she reaches out to collect a tip.
You remember recently, in Haryana, where a dancer was shot and killed at a wedding? These kind of things have always happened in smaller towns and cities. Earlier, it would take a while for the news to reach the media, but now, there are editions everywhere. There is an information revolution in India, especially with social media and WhatsApp. So now, people in the metropolis know about these occurrences. And that can be helpful for somebody like Anaarkali.
Some critics and viewers have drawn parallels between your film and Pink.
I really like Pink. It’s got a great message. Yes, both films talk about consent. But my film is also about class — Pink is set in Delhi, an urban context. Anaarkali of Aarah is not a person whose rights will be defended in court by a lawyer. She’ll have to fight for her own rights, in the best way she knows. We have a flower in Darbhanga, Bihar, where I’m from, called dus bajiya phool. It blooms at 10 o’clock and its petals close after an hour. Anaarkali is like that. Everybody wants to see her sing and dance but she’s treated like an untouchable. Look at the Dalit history and discourse: they didn’t have an outsider fighting for their rights, Ambedkar was one of their own. It wouldn’t ring true if somebody else came to say “No means No” on Anaarkali’s behalf.
Also, the story should stand on its own. It’s not about the message. Anaarkali of Aarah is not about telling people what to do; it’s a true story that has been depicted on the big screen. People are fighting battles like these every day, in every part of India.
Your film is authentic, in its dialogues, songs and costumes. How important was it to set it in Bihar?
Very important. I can’t tell a story truthfully of a place I don’t know. I’d like to make a film set in Mumbai but it will look and sound fake, because I don’t know this city. I know Bihar, and I’m worried that viewers might not understand all of the Bhojpuri-Hindi spoken in my film. But I wanted to keep it that way. You can’t just say humra-tumra and call it Bihari or Bhojpuri.
Your cast, mainly Swara Bhaskar and Sanjay Mishra, have been remarkable.
Swara has gone above and beyond in her dedication to the film. I met her through a mutual friend, Raj Shekhar, the lyricist, who cooks excellent mutton and invited a bunch of us to dinner. Swara and I got to talking and I told her the story. I had already written 80-90 pages and she was very excited at the idea stage itself.
Many people told me that Sanjay should not be cast as a villain. His last few roles have been positive ones. But I disagreed. He’s such an incredible actor, he can become anybody, even with a ridiculous wig. There was some disagreement in our team while we were shooting the end on whether a man like his character, who is trying to destroy Anaarkali, would cry. I wanted to show that a bad guy can cry when confronted by a stronger person, that an evil man can also look into the mirror and not like what he sees.
Growing up in Darbhanga, did you know you wanted to make films?
Yes. I never spoke about it when I was younger because I didn’t want people to laugh at me. I watched every movie that came to Darbhanga because it was a new world, something different was happening on the big screen. In Patna, I became a member of a cine-society and watched a lot of world cinema. In 2002, I set up a cine commune for people to come together and talk about films. Years later, after I moved to Delhi, I started another cine commune where Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and Subhash Kapoor came and we’d talk about films. But my day job was journalism — I worked as a reporter and editor for over 20 years.
You’re 41 now. Why did you switch?
I was tired and felt that I’d become a clerk. I’d settled down but what about my old dream, I thought. Pash wrote: Sabse khatarknak hota hai humare sapno ka mar jana (The most dangerous thing is the death of our dreams). So, in 2012-13, I began visiting Mumbai. I met many people, who were nice to me. Khana khilate the, sharab pilate the, but nobody took me seriously. Nobody would give me the money because I had no background in cinema. I hadn’t assisted anybody, been part of a shoot. But I was determined.
I got some work as a writer for Disney. The director’s association was of great help, they sent several small jobs my way. My wife, who works at the BBC, handled our home and finances in Delhi while I scouted for work in Mumbai. I didn’t rent an apartment, I crashed with a few friends. I still don’t have an apartment here. We want to move to Mumbai but my wife is daunted by the rent. But it is the city of dreams.
What are you working on now?
I have a story in mind, about a Bihari girl who dreams of becoming a professional hockey player.