– Ashish Alexander
When I watched Anarkali of Arrah the other day on TV, my mind immediately went back to a novel about a young servant girl, poor and vulnerable, hounded by her lustful aristocrat master. The novel was written many, many years ago. Two hundred and seventy seven years ago, to be precise; yes, 227 years. The novel became a literary sensation. Everybody was reading it, its success was unprecedented and astonished the literary circle! The novel was written by an unpretentious printer in London, a Puritan called Samuel Richardson—and the title of the novel was Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).
I am not sure if the makers of the 2017 film had read the novel; incidentally, the film was based loosely on real-life incidents. In 2011, a folk singer was allegedly molested in public by a vice-chancellor of a university in Gaya in Bihar, and the former decided to take him on. When Richardson wrote his novel, he too fell back on a similar story he had heard about 25 years ago. To be fair, it’s not hard to search for these kind of incidents. Deprivation and depravity spawn hundreds of such stories around us.
But when turned into a book or a film why do they become such a rage. Why did 18th-century Londoners love Pamela? Many opined that its success may be attributed to purely voyeuristic reasons; the reader wants to know, will she surrender or not. What graphic details could be expected to be there when she does give in? It’s the “vicarious sexual experience” that readers were looking for. However, the scholars agree that such stupendous success could not be ascribed to voyeurism alone. The readers saw that in the novel by not surrendering to the supremacy of her master, that “chit of a girl” had challenged the power relations of her society. More than that it was the triumph of the meek against the mighty that resonated with the public. Walter Allen, a historian of English novel, comments: “Against an almost omnipotent authority Richardson pitted helplessness combined with virtue – and despite all hazards, helplessness combined with virtue triumphed, simply because it was virtue, and what is more, forced authority to accept it on his own terms. It was this that the age applauded: Richardson was the spokesman of justice.”
It wasn’t sex, but justice that people craved for.
It wasn’t sex, but justice that people craved for. Modern literature, especially the modern genre, the novel, centred on the lives, struggles and triumphs of people who had been on the margin of society. Their presence and representation in culture was marginal, too. Epics and tragedies, the classical forms of literature, would tell the tales and fortunes of high-born men—kings, warriors, demigods—pitted against the cosmic powers, but no epic could have been written about the inconsequential struggles of a hapless “Pamela”—a woman and social nobody. Why is her virtue so important—after all, hundreds and thousands of servant girls had been sexually exploited by their masters throughout history. The reason lay in that post Reformation, the moral and intellectual climate of Europe had changed. Individualism and individual dignity, Reformation’s gift to the West, birthed a new intellectual climate in Europe and with it a new literary form, the novel. Incidentally, critics of this new low-brow literature deemed it fit on the ill-educated and women. But as Terry Eagleton tells us, “In the end, the English novel would wreak its vengeance on those who dismissed it as fit only for females by producing some magnificent portrayals of women. It also produced some distinguished female exponents of the craft.” World literature would never be the same. Cinema, the youngest narrative genre, has inherited the same moral framework.
Anarkali of Arrah, reaffirms that our apparently sex-crazy world pines for justice for the weak, justice for “helplessness with virtue”.
Anarkali of Arrah, reaffirms that our apparently sex-crazy world pines for justice for the weak, justice for “helplessness with virtue”. In the end of the movie, we see the police commissioner getting ready to begin criminal proceeding against the vice-chancellor. The film, however, has a reformatory ending, the lonely VC breaks down, and one hopes these are tears of repentance. Anarkali is free to live her life, her way.
In the novel, Mr B., the prurient master, repents and honourably marries Pamela. Anarkali and Pamela could exchange places because 18th-century London and 21st-century Arrah are under one moral framework that says “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.