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.
The trump card of Ishqiya, however, is its characters. A special shout out must go to the casting director who does a spectacular job of casting each and every role, such that the parts seem like they were written for the actors playing them, even though you’ve never seen any of them do anything remotely similar. Shah is potent as usual, and shows innocence, despondence, vulnerability, and charm as well as he ever has. Warsi finds a role for the first time since the memorable Circuit in the Munnabhai franchise that suits him to a T, and he grabs onto it with both hands. He treads the path of too much in a few scenes, but is just about perfect for the role, and does complete justice. Amongst the supporting cast, the child actor playing Nandu has only a couple of scenes, but is precocious without being annoying and is the standout in the supporting cast. The film however unequivocally belongs to Vidya Balan.
Krishna is at times a victimized widow and at times a wily nymphet, and Balan transforms with just the tiniest shift in expression, or the most insignificant gesture, from one to another that her performance in this film could actually be studied in film school. She is clearly out of her regular style of work (as evidenced by her previous films) but fleshes out a character that is so real and oozes with sensuality that she ends up being irresistible. This film was probably shot before Paa, and Balan still carries some of the weight she had lost for Paa, but in the saris she wears, she has never looked as hot as she does in this film. Even though they look nothing alike, she manages in this film to bring back the memories of the raw sensuality of Smita Patil, and she clearly has the acting prowess to match as well. Undeniably the most powerful female character in cinema since Shabana Azmi in Godmother, this is the best performance by an actress in years, and if Balan does not get her due for this film, she probably never will, because this is one hard act to follow. She is the heart and soul of this film, and rightly so.
All Bhardwaj films have genius titles, and this film isn’t any different, and what is more, it is very fitting. The film is all about Ishqiya, and as corny as it sounds, it won’t be odd if many of you feel the ishq or crush long after you’ve left the cinema.Powered by Sidelines