The first time I saw Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, I walked out having enjoyed it but not quite knowing what to make of it. At a basic level, it’s a very entertaining movie – and how could it not be, with that cast, with those dialogues, with all the care and intelligence evident in each scene? – but the whole never became more than the sum of its parts. I felt it was a lot of wit (a man who’s fated to die by a gas explosion mistakenly saying “cylinder” instead of “surrender”) and atmosphere (the grimy Gorakhpur-ness of it all) and not much else. There was also the problem of getting a fix on the genre (and therefore knowing how to respond). The setting and the score seemed to be evoking a Western. The plot seemed to be hinting at noir. And there was the sense of screwball comedy in the proceedings. Was this a serious film or a trifle? (Or both?) Was it about characters and story, or was it a winking pastiche? How invested in it were we meant to be?
But subsequent viewings persuaded me that these genre distractions are simply whitewash, and that the film is essentially a good, old-fashioned, even Bollywoodian love story. The key to Ishqiya, in my mind, is the scene where Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah), Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Krishna (Vidya Balan), after kidnapping a local big shot, are driving back to her home. We’re meant to be chewing our fingernails about their getting away with it, but instead of this tension, we’re left with the high emotional drama resulting from all the love in the film – Khalujaan’s high-minded love for Krishna, Babban’s earthier love for Krishna, and underlying it all, Krishna’s undying (as it were) love for her husband. (Even a comic subplot, a little earlier, revolved around the kidnapping victim’s love for his mistress.) All this love was the film’s glue. But in spit-shining each scene for maximum impact, Chaubey lost track of this overarching trajectory (we sense it coming together fully only in the end, when all these characters and all their loves converge), but watching the movie a second (or a fourth) time, we could fill in the gaps ourselves and latch on to this (romantic) narrative. (At least, that’s what I did.)
The sequel, Dedh Ishqiya – there! Again, all that cleverness in that title – is just as much a love story. And it’s a sequel in all the obvious ways – almost as if they didn’t want to tamper with a winning formula. One smallish town in Uttar Pradesh gives way to another (Mahmudabad). Here too, we have Khalujaan’s purer love (for Begum Para, played by Madhuri Dixit-Nene, who, like Balan, appears slightly miscast), Babban’s baser version of the emotion (directed towards Huma Qureishi’s Muniya). In Ishqiya, we learnt that Khalujaan’s uncle was a tabla exponent from the Indore gharana, and then we saw Babban prancing around to Dhanno ki aankhon mein in a red-light area – and this high-low contrast in the duo is evident here too. Begum Para, like Krishna, is a widow, and she too is forced to fend for herself with a combination of womanly wiles and manly… hustle. These women, of course, aren’t what they seem (why else would Dixit-Nene’s character be named after an old-time actress?), and the men, again, are reduced to chutiyum sulphates.
More similarities follow – another kidnapping plot, another request by a lovelorn Khalujaan to be called by his given name of Iftekhar, another climax with goons and guns, another early scene with Babban seeking Scheherazade-like reprieve from an early grave through the narration of a story (and it’s the same story, about a foul-mouthed parrot) – but these numerous overt similarities don’t result in sequel fatigue, and that’s because of a rather unexpected replacement: Begum Akhtar instead of Lata Mangeshkar. The parade of old Hindi songs in the earlier film has been replaced by recitations of Urdu poetry (helpfully presented with English subtitles). We’re still in Uttar Pradesh, we’re still following the same characters (who think less with their heads than with their hearts… and loins), but we seem to be in a slightly different movie, a slightly different world. This, really, is how sequels should be made, hewing close enough to the earlier film(s) so that they seem part of a cinematic continuum, and yet different enough so that we don’t feel we’re watching the same film all over again.
In Ishqiya, Khalujaan (Shah was superb there; he’s superb here) was always part of a duo, but here, separated at least for a while from Babban, he comes alive as his own person. He looks at Para and remembers her from long ago, and she could almost be (and she perhaps is) the woman from the sepia-tinted photograph in his wallet we saw in the earlier film. Her old-worldness completes his. One of the most effective scenes in Ishqiya was Khalujaan’s admission that he cannot lie convincingly because he’s a man, and when Krishna asks him what if he were a woman, he spits out, “Phir pata nahin chalta ki pari hoon ya tawaif.” The sequel has no use for this Madonna-whore dichotomy, but it continues with the conceit is that men are weaker, emotionally, than women, and here, Khalujaan is physically weak as well. He suffers from hand tremors, and an early plan to impersonate a nawab – with Babban as his man Friday – has to be changed to reverse roles. But when he sees Begum Para, he can play the nawab again. He declares that he wants to live for himself, for a change, and in this old-world setting, where time seems to have stood still, he’s back in his element – so much so that when he steps out and is seen in a Beatles T-shirt, it’s an instant sight gag.
And Begum Para is everything he could hope for in a soul mate. She’s a dancer, a disciple of Birju Maharaj. When we first see her, she’s presented like a heroine from a classical painting, gazing out of a window, while Hamri atariya pe aao sanwariya, dekha dekhi balam hoi jaye plays in the background, as if foreshadowing a future meeting on a rooftop. (And this old-worldness is contrasted with the next-gen youthfulness of Babban and Muniya, who speak of iPhones and noodle dinners.) As opposed to Ishqiya, where both men fell for the same woman, Babban isn’t even interested in Begum Para. Khalujaan’s rival, this time, is Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz, in superb comic form; even the way he takes up his stance during a skeet shooting contest is hilarious), who is also present at the Begum’s swayamvar. (She’s choosing a new husband, and he has to be a poet.) As a result, in this Ishqiya too, there’s love everywhere you look. Begum Para, reading Khalujaan’s palm, declares that he has lost many times in love. A physician announces that the cure for Khalujaan’s tremors is to find himself a girl to love. And there’s even an enumeration – somewhat needlessly (and fussily) – of the seven stages of love.
Dedh Ishqiya is filled with so much wit and wordplay that listening to the dialogues alone makes the movie worthwhile. Muniya asks someone where Salim’s tea stall is, and when asked what her name is, she replies, with a deadpan, “Anarkali.” Earlier, while pulling off a heist at a jeweller’s, Babban asks for the way to the bathroom as his money is in his underwear. The puzzled jeweller asks Khalujaan how much money can one keep, after all, in one’s underwear, and Khalujaan replies casually, “Kuch chaar paanch… Do-dhaai aage, do-dhaai peeche.” A character named Noor Mohammad Italvi (Manoj Pahwa) reveals that his surname arises from the fact that his mother is from Italy; he’s asked, “Bofors wala?” A Mexican standoff ends when a recording of Humko man ki shakti dena plays at a school assembly.
But other times – during a Batman quote, or during an exchange about DNA, or when the combination to a lock is revealed as 9211, or during the umpteenth Mexican standoff – we begin to feel that the cleverness exists for its own sake. And while (in Ishqiya) Krishna’s emotional trauma, the motivation for what she subsequently does, was etched out well enough through the tragedy we saw at the film’s beginning, we don’t sense that much being at stake when, say, Jaan Mohammad stalks Begum Para. He just comes across like a routine creep, and her line about being suffocated in his presence, due to his repeated overtures, doesn’t carry the weight it should. We don’t see why she’s such a bundle of nerves. And a following scene, where her past is alluded to through a wedding album, appears incomplete. We look for more details to fill out her character – and her motivation, explained away in one line at the end, isn’t enough. Even the songs don’t help this time around. Khalujaan’s love – in the absence of a declarative number like Dil to bachcha hai ji, with its lines like Dil sa koi kameena nahin… Dar lagta ishq karne mein ji – doesn’t register as strongly.
The only song that works, both as a superb composition on its own as well as a terrific marker for whatever’s happening at that point on screen, is the soaring Dil ka diya, and as it unfolds, it appears that the emotions bubbling under the surface will finally burst through, but soon the film slips back into its con games. And that, really, is the problem with these Ishqiya movies. There’s so much to savour in them, but they never become what they could have been because the heaviness of the love stories, which are the core, are diminished by the lightness, the cheekiness, the tomfoolery in everything else. This, more than the mishmash of seemingly conflicting genres, appears to be the problem. There’s something strange and disorienting about a ruminative song from Chitralekha following a scene where Muniya explains to Babban that what they shared was just sex not love, which is then followed by a startling flashback that hints at a very different kind of love. And the same questions come up. Is this a serious film or a trifle? Is it about characters and story, or is it a winking pastiche? How invested in it are we meant to be? Once again, I walked out of an Ishqiya movie having enjoyed it but not quite knowing what to make of it.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.