Written by: Gargi Sengupta | Image: SMIW
Stumbling upon Anarkali Of Aarah – on TV – just a day after watching Lipstick Under My Burkha at the plex, certainly made me think if we pass too many things off as ‘happenstance’.
To be honest, had Lipstick not received the kind of attention it did, I would have never gone to the multiplex. On the contrary, I hardly knew anything about Anarkali before I read the reviews, and by the time I decided to watch it, there were no more shows available.
Both the movies have similar underpinnings: women’s empowerment, struggles of ‘small town’ women, focus on how a patriarchal mindset often decides a woman’s predefined role and ‘respectability’ in the society she lives in, among other parallels.
On each of those points, Anarkali, in my opinion, sets a far better example than the much hyped Lipstick.
Ironically, the movies released within a few months of each other. Yet, Swara Bhaskar’s nuanced performance was hardly the point of discourse on feminism, women’s empowerment, or even rape culture.
Not for a moment am I saying Lipstick doesn’t deserve the accolades it has garnered. It is a well-crafted movie with clever writing and brilliant performances.
The crude realities of not-so-privileged lives of four women in a not so ‘progressive’ neighbourhood of an otherwise ‘modern’ city, is deftly portrayed. You can relate to their struggles, their aspirations and their small triumphs.
It also paints a rather jarring – and not entirely untrue – picture of how women might treat regular intercourse. It’s not a dreamy sequence, nor a sensual one. It’s more a need, which in the movie’s context, is satisfied inside dingy store rooms and dirty loos. In contrast, the more sanitised insides of the bedroom is oppressive in each intimate sequence. It’s perhaps the truth behind so many closed doors.
Lipstick by all means is definitely ‘bold’, like Kaavya Pillai pointed out in her Spoilt Modern Film Review. However, it fails to truly ‘empower’ its central women characters.
None of the women make a stand for themselves in the narrative.
Rehana lies through her teeth to avoid confrontation with her conservative parents; Shireen lets her husband force himself upon her every night and yet is determined enough to track down and humiliate his mistress; Usha reads sleazy novels hidden between pious books and is eventually reduced to a pitiful creature; Leela is perhaps the only one out of the lot who shows some character but ends up being the vixen nonetheless.
In the end, all four end up adhering to stereotypes, one way or the other.
A few minutes into the movie, there’s a sequence of Usha chancing upon an elderly widower. The man refers to her as Buaji, like everyone else does. I would have liked to see this awkward chance meeting turn into a full-blown romance instead of the elderly woman pining after a himbo who she clearly can’t reveal her true self to.
How is it that 50-somethings can’t have sexual / romantic feelings towards each other? Had this storyline been explored, Usha would still be judged and maligned, but she wouldn’t be reduced to a pitiable, forlorn old woman in the climax. Likewise, both Rehana and Shireen could have been more assertive with their respective family members, like they are outside the confines of their homes. As for Leela, I wished that she could be a little less flighty, maybe?
On the other hand, I got none of these feelings while watching Anarkali of Aarah.
Anarkali is ‘free meat’ for the archetypal Indian man by virtue of her profession. She sings and dances to songs full of innuendos. And yet, she fights back with all her might when a powerful man outrages her modesty publicly.
She refuses to cow down to her preordained station in society. She wears her profession and sexuality proudly.
Aarah is far behind in terms of ‘modernization’ from Bhopal. It doesn’t even have the quintessential symbols of urbanization, from which the women in Lipstick seemingly draw their strength from. Yet, its heroine packs more punches than all four protagonists of Lipstick taken together.
Lipstick’s makers stress that the film is feminist in that it explores women’s sexuality and desires. While that may be true, it is also true that the narrative keeps the women under their Burkhas – metaphorically – by binding them in their misery instead of making strong characters out of them.
A ‘happy’ ending doesn’t necessarily mean an idealistic one and that’s why as bright as Lipstick is, it is Anarkali, which, according to me, shines through as the superior film.
About the Author:
Gargi fancies herself as a left-brained, right leaning conscientious individual with a weakness for good food, films, and fiction.