Between Reviews: Generically Speaking…

Posted on February 13, 2010


Picture courtesy:

Picture courtesy:


Is “Ishqiya” noir? Is it a Western? Is it a bastard-hybrid or both, and if so, is it a noirish Western or a Western-shaded noir? Discuss.

FEB 14, 2010 – VIDYA BALAN’S CURVES, AS GLIMPSED in the entrancingly earthy shot that opens Ishqiya, could serve as an engineer’s guide to hewing roadways through unyielding mountain rock – all zigs, zags and rippling hairpin bends. If looks could kill, hers would. Krishna (as the character is named) is truly a dangerous woman, or as the French would have it, a femme fatale. The question I was wrestling with while writing my review, however, was if Krishna was really a femme fatale, in the sense of the term as used in classic film noir to describe – you’ll have to pardon my French here! – a ball-breaking bitch who employs her bosomy charms to ensnare smitten men into carrying out typically baneful biddings. With Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai or even – at a shimmy-stretch – Helen in the Eastman Colour-noir Teesri Manzil, there’s little doubt about the fatality of these femmes.

And on the surface, Krishna does qualify as a wily, worthy descendant. She’s unhesitant about using her beauty to catch the eye of Babban (Arshad Warsi) – she notices this lecherous cad peering through the window as she’s doing up the straps of her backless blouse, and you wonder if she decided to change fully knowing he was around or if she began to change, caught him looking and resolved, on the spot, to not acknowledge his prurient presence, to dangle her body as bait in the hope that he’ll bite. It’s not easy to read her, which is a gold-standard characteristic of the femme fatale. But it’s equally true that her motives are high-minded – if not really straight, at least not self-serving. Krishna isn’t someone you’d want to mess with – she’s a rattlesnake in Rajasthani colours – but like Joan Crawford’s upwardly mobile mother (in service of a much beloved daughter) in Mildred Pierce or Helen’s near-nemesis (in service of a much beloved brother) in the not-quite-noir Don, Krishna’s dispassionate demeanor is merely in service of a much beloved husband. She isn’t truly… evil.

So does that make her a femme fatale and, by extension, is Ishqiya really noir? That was the question vexing me. Noir, as we know, isn’t so much a genre as a style that can be administered across a variety of genres. Elements of this style include a high-contrast Expressionistic mode of cinematography, a bitterly humorous strain of dialogue referred to as “hard-boiled,” and narrative signposts like rampant amorality and double crosses and last-minute rug-pulling and relationships inexorably steeped in doom. Ishqiya is spiced with more than a smattering of these traits – the problem for me, however, was the complete lack of cynical nihilism, the lightheartedness of tone and treatment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or even heard of) a “screwball-comedy noir” – namely, the style of noir applied to the genre of screwball comedy – and I wondered if Ishqiya was something of a first in this respect, with comic riffs on a battle-of-the-sexes premise set in a gleefully amoral universe.

Given the pressures of deadline-driven review writing, however, I decided to drop that consideration (which would involve a lot more introspection and hand-wringing), and I defined the film by its predominant genre – as a Western, with the frontier setting transposed to the Indian hinterland. This categorisation was far easier to commit to, for Ishqiya features not just dust-laden cusp-of-nowhere locales, but also a couple of gun-happy outsiders who stumble into a lawless anyplace riven by internecine caste wars, and with horses, sheriffs and bordello belles being substituted by stolen cars, cops, and a fetishistic mistress. And because of the femme fatale flavour from Krishna, Ishqiya – if not screwball-comedy noir – could possibly be viewed as a filtered-through-the-female-gaze noir-Western, hitherto the domain of roiling masculine angst (as most notably limned in the seminal James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations, like Winchester ’73 and The Man from Laramie).

The classification of Ishqiya as noir or Western or noir-Western or even (probably) neo-noir was just one of the intents of this article. The other was to muse about how our films are almost always hybrids, sprawled out at the crossroads between auteurist ambitions and entertainment-value considerations (song-and-dance, comedy, ticket-counter-oriented big-name casting). With exceptions like the gangster sagas of Ram Gopal Varma or the eccentrically stylised musicals of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, very rarely to we witness single-minded commitment to a genre. But this isn’t a complaint – indeed, who’d complain when the result is as rollicking as Ishqiya? – so much as a respectful acknowledgement of how unique our filmmaking (and film-watching) culture is. It’s interesting that the multiplexes have thrown open such wide avenues for experimental creators, and it’s intriguing to imagine what we’ll see next. A mash-up of History and Horror? Sci-fi and War? Dance and Western? Bring it on – preferably with a delectable femme fatale thrown in for good measure.

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