The story of a nautch girl from Bihar, who is unapologetic about her sexuality and unashamed about her profession, and ends up being assaulted by the vice chancellor of a university, Anaarkali of Aarah opened to much critical acclaim when it released a few months ago. On Wednesday, when it was screened at the India Habitat Centre’s Stein Auditorium in Delhi as part of The Indian Express Film Club, it sparked a lively discussion around consent and patriarchy.
The discussion was moderated by The Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta. Avinash Das, the film’s director, and producer Sandip Kapur, too, were present at the event.
“Does a woman who sings and dances with abandon, whose songs use double-meaning lyrics, and who is visibly a free spirit, automatically become available to a man who pegs himself higher in the social-economic pecking order? Anaarkali of Aarah says it like it should have been, with a resounding ‘no’. And I say an equally resounding ‘yes’ to this film, helmed by a bunch of excellent actors, and a debutant director with a staunch true voice,” said Gupta.
During the discussion, the audience spoke of the many fine nuances and subtleties in the film that take on matters such as sexual consent, patriarchy and misogyny. “We need more such films that talk about consent and the free will of women. When a woman says no, it’s a resounding no. Specially in a country where a minister says that marital rape is not rape,” said Meenakshi Iyer, a homemaker. The character of Pankaj Tripathi — Rangeela, the coordinator of Anaarkali’s troupe — was also the subject of much debate. “Rangeela knows what’s wrong, but mitigating factors like monetary stability hold him back from doing something. Most of us are like him,” said Shivam Ashutosh Singh, a student.
The discussion got a bit heated when Basudha Bannerjee, a documentary maker with All India Radio, said that maybe Anaarkali should have held herself back and not been so much in the face of authority. “If I was her aunt, I would have advised her to hold back, and not be so aggressive in the light of what happened,” she said. Khushi Singh Rathore, an MPhil student, responded: “I think Anaarkali should have been more in everyone’s face. We need more people to challenge the male gaze and the sense of entitlement that comes along with it.”