Abhishek Chaubey’s (or should that be Vishal Bhardwaj’s?) Ishqiya is set in the dark heart of a Gorakhpur populated by gun-runners, small-time and big-time hoodlums, double-crossers and avenging angels. The film’s leading men Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) are crooks too, but they are fleeing a sadistic boss (some things stay constant across cultures and settings), and in this landscape they are practically innocents abroad – a bit like R2D2 and C3PO fumbling their way through the desert in Star Wars. Then Krishna (Vidya Balan), a widow with an enigmatic past, invites them into her house, but the lighting and framing makes her look like a spider at the entrance of her web, and this is no reassurance that Babban and Khalu are any safer than they were on the road. Is Krishna pari or tawaif, or a combination of both, or something much more lethal?
At any rate, things are equally dangerous inside and outside. This is a place where crime, betrayal and violent recrimination are taken for granted. Thakurs and Pandeys are determinedly assembling their little armies and gun-stacks to resolve feuds that have been raging for generations; minions must dig their own graves if they fall out of favour; when a businessman calls his wife to say he needs money, her first, almost matter-of-fact response is, “Kidnap ho gaye kya?” Everyone is debauched, and ostentatiously religious too (a man with a fondness for S&M meets his whip-wielding mistress in a room with a large Radha-Krishna poster on the wall). From a salty little exchange between Babban and a street-smart young boy, we gather that children in the region are taught how to use rifles before they are toilet trained; later, a hilarious scene gives us visual confirmation of this.
“Taught how to use rifles before they are toilet-trained”?! What sort of lame attempt is that to translate this film’s dialogue? (You’re spending too much time in Select Citywalk, Jabberwock.) Actually, it’s pointless, in a post written in English, to try to convey the rustic, bawdy vigour of Vishal Bhardwaj’s script; it has to be experienced firsthand, and as spoken by these actors. How to express the precise way, for example, in which Arshad Warsi (in a performance that’s every bit as good as his career-defining Circuit) says he has a bad case of acidity, pronouncing it so it sounds a bit like “STD”? Or his “May-ter [matter] kya hai?” when something seems to be wrong. Or the cheerful lewdness of his banter with the young boy whom he asks to show him the local red-light area. I admired the way Ishqiya throws us full-heartedly into this milieu, providing no safety nets for the big-city multiplex viewer who isn’t intimately familiar with the cadences of speech in rural Uttar Pradesh. (Bhardwaj’s Omkara did this too, but there the informed viewer at least had the bulwark of knowing that the film was based on the Othello template – which made the story and character arcs easier to follow. In this one, we're more adrift.)
Though I liked Ishqiya a good deal, I felt a sense of dissatisfaction at the end, a sense that I hadn’t spent enough time with the three principal characters; that I needed to know them better and see how their strange inter-relationships play out. And no, this doesn’t mean I wanted the film to be longer (two hours is a comfortable running time) – I just thought it became more convoluted than it needed to be, investing too much time and attention on side-characters who weren’t nearly as interesting as the three leads. The romantic-triangle-that-isn’t-quite-a-romantic-triangle between Babban, Krishna and Khalujaan is the most compelling thing about this film (along with the great score); everything around it is embellishment, or should have been.
I’m not a fan of most of Vidya Balan’s early work, but she’s made some sensible career choices in recent times, and she can be quite good when she isn’t darting her eyes about in that self-conscious, coquettish way. I remember thinking, when I drifted off while watching Eklavya (as described in this post), that she’d make a very convincing psychopath if given half a chance. Well, she doesn’t quite play a psycho in Ishqiya, but her potential for darkness is certainly tapped: Hindi cinema has waited many decades for a convincing portrait of the sari-clad small-town widow as femme fatale, and now at last we have one. There’s a stretch in the film when you can see that Krishna is cynically manipulating both men in line with their different personalities – tugging at Khalu’s heartstrings with one hand (he’s a middle-aged romantic who loves old Hindi songs and has soft-focus daydreams where he and Krishna are doing nothing more scandalous than getting married) and at the sex-starved Babban’s pyjama-strings with the other hand. We aren’t sure about her motives, and for once the trace of something manipulative behind the familiar Balan smile is completely appropriate to the role. Earlier, when she played goody-goody heroines, I was the only one – on or off the screen – who could see the menace lurking behind that smile, and it drove people around me crazy. Now I feel vindicated.
P.S. The shot of Babban and Khalu sitting glumly in a grave they’ve just dug for themselves reminded me of this publicity still from Manorama Six Feet Under – another fine rural noir.