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Leading lady Swara Bhaskar and director Avinash Das of Anaarkali Of Aarah in conversation with Team Box Office India

BOI: How did the subject of this film come to mind?

Avinash Das (AD): A long time ago, when I was working in a television channel, I used to watch YouTube on the night shift. Back then, YouTube was not really in vogue. I was looking for a song relating to my native place and I came across a very erotic female folk video song. It was a very bad song and the singer had a scar on her face. It stuck in my mind and I began to wonder how these people spend their lives. What is their journey? I researched the subject for 7 to 8 years and I started drafting my story around them.

Swara Bhaskar (SB): Totally creepy.

BOI: Swara, what was the hook for you in this film?

SB: When Avinashji told me the title and synopsis, I really liked the title. At that time, it was titled Anaarkali Aarhawaliand I thought ‘what a fabulous title!’ I had no idea that he was actually asking me to proof read it, so that he could pitch it to someone else. I really thought… what a man! But it was the title and script that got me hooked in the very beginning. I thought that even if I was not doing the film, I would at least get to read the script.

We spoke for 4 to 5 hours and I became his proof-reader. He wrote more than 20 drafts and I read all of them.  Finally, agar kisi cheez ko agar dil se chaho to saari kayanath tumhe usse milane… That’s a famous line from one of Shah Rukh sir’s films and it proved right because I really wanted to do this role from the bottom of my heart, and it did come back to me. That’s how I came on board Anaarkali of Aarah.

I think this story needed to be told and Avinashji has narrated the story in a very brave manner. This character is a first in Bollywood.

BOI: Avinash, how did you approach Swara for this role?

AD: I wanted her to do this film but I was directing a film for the first time, so I was a little apprehensive. Still, I asked Swara, kya karogi humare sath kaam and she said, yes, I am ready. So we worked on the character together. It was great that Swara had already read the story.

SB: I would like to tell Avinashji that this role will make history for me, and it is one of the most memorable characters I have played. I was the last choice in those big films like Tanu Weds ManuRanjhaana and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. In PRDP, the entire Hindi film industry said ‘no’ to the role because no one wanted to play Salman Khan’s sister. And those were all hit films, so for our film, this is a good sign.

BOI: As the director of this film, what challenges did you face?

AD: First, I am an outsider, I don’t belong to Mumbai. And, second, I don’t have a filmy background, I have a media background. Then I had one story and wherever I went, people would ask, what is your work experience? They wanted my story but they wanted someone else to direct it. But I was adamant about directing it myself. I struggled for two years before I met Sandiip Kapur (the film’s producer) and finally the film started to move forward. 

BOI: Swara, did you research your character?

 SB: Yes. First, I went to Aarah, because you don’t see the kind of dance performances in the film anywhere in Mumbai. I belong to Delhi and you don’t get to see them there either. Also, since the tile of the film has ‘Aarah’ in it, I felt I should see what the city was all about.

Avinashji gave me a guide, Ashutosh Pandeyji, who helped me explore the place. Then Avinashji showed me a screenshot of a board that said, ‘Munni orchestra party’. I visited that place and met Munni and her troupe who used to perform. I interviewed the entire group of girls, I listened to their songs and their life stories.

Since I didn’t really understand the songs, I got them translated and was shocked at the double meaning in them. I really wanted to watch their dance performances, which I couldn’t see in Aarah but I watched in Kosi Kalan near Mathura. I saw a show there and I immediately called Avinashji and Sundiipji and said, ‘Sir, we need a choreographer too because these girls even dance.’ Another special thing about this story is that Teesri Kasam was the last film in Hindi cinema that revolved around a dancer and an orchestra party.

AD: Teesri Kasam was a pure love story. That story was based on a female dancer, who falls in love and how her heart is broken. Our story too is about a female singer and how her life takes a turn and how she struggles alone.

SB: Item numbers today are given so much importance in films and, in this film, I am doing three item songs. Not only do we have item songs, we have also given a voice and a story to those girls. This film has a female perspective, which makes it truly refreshing.

BOI: Can you explain the process you follow while writing?

AD: First, I hail from Bihar and this is a story from Bihar. Second, I am familiar with how these women speak. It is like – ‘Jaise talwar se kiski ki garden kaat di ho.’ So whenever Anaarkali spoke, I tried to give her dialogues that no one can stand in front of her again. Swara brought in her own inputs and has improvised my script. She added a lot to her character.

SB: (Cuts in) I remember thinking that the script I had initially read could come only from a journalist. And by ‘journalist’, I don’t mean it in the traditional sense but someone who has travelled a lot and heard such stories for real. This was clearly reflected in the narrative. And I think that is amazing.

BOI: Each character you have portrayed has had very strong female values. In this film, what inputs did you add to your character?

SB: I think I really annoyed Avinashji a lot but since he is such a nice guy, he took note of everything I had to say. I got attached to this character and was hooked as soon as I heard the title of the film. I felt that with a title like this, the story deserves to be equally fabulous. As a woman and as an artiste, I was attached to this character on another level. Till the last day of the shoot, I had notations and questions written on the script, for him.

AD: Even though I have been a media person for so long, I am not used to being questioned so much. But, honestly, I liked it.

SB: The most special thing about this character is that, in the Hindi film industry, whenever you have a character like this walking a fine line, she is assumed to be a woman of no virtues… she is a prostitute but a good woman; or a bar dancer but doesn’t have sex with anyone; or a vamp but with a golden heart. We are not getting into that debate, we are saying, okay, according to your middle class morality and values, she is without character… so what?  The point we are making is something else.

Once we had established and accepted that, we stopped being apprehensive. I remember discussing this with Avinashji, about whether or not we need to defend Anaarkali.  And he bluntly said… and I believe it is the best line ever to have been spoken by an actresses… that, ‘Hum koi sati savitri nahi hain private ka baat alag hota hai hum sambhal lete.’ I love that moment in the film so much. But this is a character that the audience will find hard to relate to and I feel that is a challenge for us.

AD: Not hard for the audience but, after a point, the audience empathises with the character even though they might not be able to support this kind of woman in real life.

SB: Yes, and that is an advantage of our industry. The film will communicate with the audience in a commercial sense through its content-driven narrative

BOI: Was it difficult for you to detach yourself from this character?

SB: It may sound odd but I was able to connect with a woman of questionable character, who sings vulgar songs and is in this kind of profession. The blurring of lines between an actor and a character is what happened with Anaarkali and me. 

First, Anaarkali is an artiste and I am an artiste as well, I am a performer as well. So I am used to that gaze and that staring… you want people to watch you and appreciate your art. Second, I think the fighting spirit that this character has and the anger she has for fundamental reasons, for justice… I relate to that as well. After playing this part, I have become more of an angry young woman. Thank you Avinashji! And add to that, the ‘good’ virtues this character has given me… Now I abuse, I have learnt to eat paan and smoke beedis. (Laughs)

We were having an actors’ workshop for the film and whenever he used to come to meet us, the first thing he would ask me is that beedi pi kya tumne?

BOI: As a director, how did your team and your actors enhance your vision?

AD: I feel my team, especially my actors, have enhanced my vision more. I believe my film speaks more eloquently and portrays its message more beautifully thanks to my actors. It is ten times more substantial than the initial story was.

BOI: What kind of expectations do you have from this film?

SB: This is a Box Office India kind of question… about collections and release. (Laughs)

AD: I made the film and now it is about to release. Now I have shut my eyes and closed my ears. Jo hoga dekha jaega. (Laughs)

SB: Wah sir wah… apni creativity ki aad mein chhup jao.

AD: The trailers have got a much bigger response than I had anticipated, so I am very positive about the release.

SB: I think the audience will like the film. I think it will get good reviews… it is a commercial film, an engaging film and it will touch people’s hearts.

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