No love story, in recent times, has been as attuned to its heroine as Ishaqzaade – though when we first meet Zoya Qureishi (Parineeti Chopra), she seems to want to be this film’s hero. She trades in a pretty pair of jhumkas for a gun, as if surrendering her membership in the “girls” club to become one of the boys. She worships her father, an MLA in a dusty-brown tract of Hindi heartland named Almore, and she’s constantly seen in his waistcoat, which she has had altered to fit her far-tinier frame. (If not my father’s shoes, she seems to say, I’ll step into his clothes.) She campaigns for his election to local office, and she dismisses her mother, who simply does not seem to get politics. We laugh when her father brings home a prospective groom and her brothers issue threats about what will happen if he doesn’t take proper care of her, because Zoya doesn’t seem to need the protection of these burly male members of her family. At least she thinks she doesn’t.
And then she runs into Parma (Arjun Kapoor), a lout from the Chauhan clan, which is to the Qureishis what the Montagues were to the Capulets. He points a gun at her forehead and she stares back unflinchingly, but when he follows her to the bathroom at her college and locks the door behind him, he makes her feel – possibly for the first time – like a girl. At first they bicker like equals, which they are in a way, as both are children of political families, but when a teacher begins to rap at the door, wanting to get in, Parma warns Zoya not to scream – if she’s discovered with a man, her family will be dishonoured. (This scene finds an echo in the second half.) The director Habib Faisal shows us, in no uncertain terms, what it’s like to be a woman in this part of the country, which bears little resemblance to posh multiplex movies like Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, where Kareena Kapoor’s character coolly advertised the loss of her virginity. In Zoya’s India, honour is everything.
Ishaqzaade, at times, feels less a love story than some sort of social screed – so single-mindedly does it cleave to its heroine’s character arc. Her rebelliousness, her subsequent subjugation, her anger at being put in her place (as only a woman can be, in these parts), her falling in love, her learning to forgive, her overestimation of her family’s love for their sole girl-child – these colours of Zoya stain the other women too. When Zoya’s father threatens her with a gun, Parma pulls out his gun and holds it to Zoya’s mother, both men hilariously oblivious to how cheaply they regard the opposite sex. No one seems to care if these women live or die (and after they die, no tears are shed) – they are just pawns in macho games of honour, ready to be sacrificed in the next move. And we see why Zoya, in that earlier scene, bought herself a gun. In a Freudian sense, she’s practically buying herself a penis to go with her father’s waistcoat. After a particularly vile turn of events, Parma’s mother heaps blows on him and screams, “Tu kaisa jaanwar ban gaya hai,” that he’s become such an animal. But a little later, she cannot believe that Zoya wields a gun – the women have become animals too. Only Chand Bibi (the sturdy prostitute with the heart of gold, played beautifully by Gauhar Khan) possesses any semblance of female power, and she doesn’t need a gun –she’s the only woman in these parts with something that the men value and, more importantly, need.
Faisal paints the love story in a few deft and vivid strokes. Zoya begins to fall for Parma when he barges into her home, braying for forgiveness – this appears to be this film’s equivalent of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. Much later, in a lovely stretch after she’s snuck out to meet him, she returns home. She walks past her brothers playing cricket outside, past a brother biting into mangoes at the dinner table, past her mother who asks her to is-smile (she advises her mother that it’s “smile”), past a grandmother who plants on her cheek a kiss, and when she enters her room, finally, you think that this cavalcade of reminders of who she is, where she’s from, is going to make her reassess, if only for that instant, the wisdom of her falling for a kaafir from an enemy clan – but Zoya bursts into an is-smile. She’s moony, addicted – her transformation to “girl” is complete. She even slaps on a sticker bindi, which is as close to a “sindoor moment” a modern-day movie can get.
And when, soon after, she faces the prospect of sex, she turns shy for the first time. She tells Parma that this place is too open – “bahut khula khula hai” – but after a shocking pre-interval twist, she picks up a gun again. And even in the second half, it is Zoya’s story we follow – the hero is almost incidental – and now we see fear in her eyes. Any competent actress would have proved memorable with such a dramatically shaded character, but Parineeti Chopra lifts Zoya to an entirely different dimension. Like Anushka Sharma, that other Yash Raj heroine, Chopra has an open face that’s alive to every nuance, and what she feels, she transmits to us. Her energy sparks her co-star, who is weighed down by a lugubrious presence. (His swagger is a little too animated in the early portions, but he settles down eventually.) Towards the end, Chopra pulls off a stunning smiling-through-tears moment that I thought nobody did any more after we bundled off big-hearted melodrama to Bhojpuri cinema. And the supporting cast – Anil Rastogi as Parma’s grandfather, Natasha Rastogi as Parma’s widowed mother, Ratan Rathore as Zoya’s fond father – is one of the strongest in recent times.
Ishaqzaade works so well because it’s a love story where there’s something more at stake than the question of will-they-get-together. There’s her honour, their warring families, the English medium-Hindi medium divide, their religious beliefs, the shockingly casual gun culture – and these matters of great consequence necessitate a romance where the boy and the girl learn to love each other. Ishaqzaade is a slap on the face to all those love-at-first-sight movies because it says that what you see is not what you get, and that love has to be earned through trust, forgiveness and oceans of understanding. (Amit Trivedi’s rebel-rock score is perfect accompaniment to the proceedings.) The only problem comes with the final portions, which don’t peak emotionally the way you’d like them to. The ending is no surprise if you’ve read a classical romance or if you’ve been listening carefully to the dialogues – her assertion, for instance, that “Mujh pe jaan de de, aisa hoga mera shauhar” – but I was disappointingly dry-eyed and, worse, annoyed by the tacked-on coda about this film’s moorings in real life. Since when have timeless love stories needed to be justified with today’s newspaper headlines?
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.