The tragedy of contemporary Indian cinema is that, much like everything else that’s contemporary in India, it’s just not Indian. In a country with a rural population far exceeding the urban elite, a fact clearly evidenced in political elections, it’s somehow inexplicable that film characters and plots very rarely are written in a non-urban-centric environment. In fact, more often than not, we find ourselves with foreign locales conveniently dressed up with all-Indian casts, right from the British (Indian) butler, to the Bahamian (Indian) chief of police. In such a scenario, it’s more than anything else a sight for sore eyes to see a raw, rustic story being told through the tongue of an everyman.
In this deeply dissatisfying scenario, Vishal Bhardwaj has time and again brought us entertainment that is rooted in the ethos of Indian-ness. Whether it was Makdee or Maqbool, Omkara or Kaminey, Bhardwaj went from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to Maharashtra to West Bengal and fleshed out characters that are real, relatable, and more than anything else, incredibly entertaining. Perhaps that is why, from being an underfinanced independent filmmaker, he now stands in a position to have his own production company support fledgling newcomers like Abhishek Chaubey, who make cinema of the newest brand which, for want of a better term, I’m going to call Bhardwaj-esque.
Ishqiya is a prime example of cinema that brings back the feeling of the cinema of Shyam Benegal or Gulzar, but is emphatic in its purpose, which is, like all other movies under the Bhardwaj banner, unadulterated entertainment. Headlined by Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, and Arshad Warsi, it takes us on a ride from Bhopal to Gorakhpur to Faizabad and back, and introduces us to characters as nutty as Iftiqar (Shah) and Babban (Warsi) and as layered as Krishna (Balan).
The story of Ishqiya is simple enough, albeit a little indulgent to plot points. Babban and Iftiqar are on the run from a goon named Mushtaq and they run into Krishna, the widow of Vidyadhar Verma. What happens next is a delicious continuum of twists and turns, some that make you sit up and some that make you dizzy. The movie has everything that a caper film in the ilk of Kaminey needs, but instead treads a delicate balance between an unconventional romance and a tribute to noir. The duo solicit the help of Krishna and construct a plan to get out of a potentially life-threatening debt and at the same time, earn enough to retire to a life of luxury. Are there mixed motives though? Or do, per usual, the best laid plan of mice and men go askew? This is what follows in the meandering journey these three unlikely accomplices take.
The treatment is what makes this film special. Like all films before this, Bhardwaj pays incredible attention to detail in his dialogues, and they’re appropriately crass, whilst remaining effectively authentic. He gets the dainty Balan to mouth words you’d think she didn’t know the meaning of with such consummate ease that you get effortlessly sucked into the world where gang wars are treated like real wars and children of different castes are initialized into weaponry at (Bhardwaj uses colorful language to describe this) the age of potty training. There is more than a touch of humor in the movie, and most of it is induced by the dialogue and its delivery, both of which are impeccable. I’ve read that the film was shot on set in suburban Bombay, and in that case, the set decorator and the DOP deserve special plaudits for very efficiently creating the required ambience to take us back to the days of Ankur and Mrityudand.
As he has grown with his direction, so Bhardwaj has improved his musical scoring. Amongst the only composers left to rely solely on traditional Indian melody, he creates a score that is rich, textured, perfectly fitting, and that creates a mood that elevates this already very good film quite a few notches. The positioning of each song also is done immaculately, and Chaubey does a particularly fantastic job of interweaving the music with the flow of the story, and also for directing the song sequences themselves, so that at no point do they take away from the movie.