If the law of averages holds true, some day soon Vishal Bhardwaj will either produce, write or direct a film that draws a collective “meh”. Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial debut Ishqiya, co-written (with Sabrina Dhawan and Chaubey) and co-produced by Bhardwaj, however, is not that film.
Ishqiya begins with a couple in the privacy of their bed. She calls him her liege lord, he teases her that he’s got a piece on the side and her time is up; they trade innuendos about sex and betrayal. Desire is laced with an undercurrent of violence; there is something in their chemistry that makes you wonder if they’re carrying on an affair instead of the marriage the dialogue hints at.
Elsewhere, Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are two petty thieves on the run, playing an extended game of cat-and-mouse with a former associate/ godfather figure by the name of Mushtaq. Babban, the younger brute, thinks Khalujan ought to finish it for once and for all when they temporarily manage to gain the upper hand. But Khalujan is a thief with a code – he coulda been somebody, he hints – and he isn’t about to widow his sister for a matter of 25 lakhs… even if she’s quite alright with her husband shooting holes in him.
All they need is a place to hide out while Mushtaq cools down and life will be good. Sadly, thanks to their past shenanigans safe houses are rather scarce. Their search eventually leads them to the Nepal border and the home of Khalu’s former cellmate, Vidyadhar Verma. They arrive to find his widow Krishna (Vidya Balan), one half of the couple we met at the beginning of the movie, living in the burned-out remains of their home.
Everybody’s troubles have just begun.
The world of Ishqiya is not one for folks with sensibilities. Its people and the universe they live in is crude, crass, violent, epithet-laden and set to the oddly congruent beats of old Hindi songs (perhaps that’s a matter of soul, given most of these songs were either composed, written or sung by men from this part of the country). Life is cheap in this blip on the highway: children play with guns, a full-blown caste war that nobody outside their district even knows much less cares about is in progress, kidnapping and arms dealing is common business, and all the shiny malls and fancy car dealerships that have sprung up to absorb the ill-gotten money that’s flooding the street corners can’t mask the violence and decay that permeate the very air. Gorakhpur sounds like the kind of place you can’t shake if it’s your hometown, the kind of place no one with options could possibly even want to visit otherwise.
Ishqiya belongs firmly to a genre I like to call authenticity porn – every last detail of hopelessness and vice etched out with loving attention for an audience that is simultaneously fascinated yet repulsed by its very existence. This is the India that makes the India Shining crowd nervous, the representation that seems perilously close to poverty porn, the kind of stuff that gets Arvind Adiga crucified in opinion pieces and got Ram Gopal Verma (v. 1.0) laudatory notices.
Of course, I write this as somebody who quite enjoys it. Woman cannot live by glitzy Bollywood productions alone, after all. This woman can’t, anyway. And Ishqiya is the best kind of authenticity porn: entertaining. It’s funny, profane, witty and razor-sharp in the observations it manages to nonchalantly turn into colloquialisms – “The difference between him and me is that between a Hindu and a Muslim,” Khalujan banters when Krishna remarks that he and Babban (his nephew) don’t seem to have much in common.
Although co-written by Bhardwaj, the modern master of authenticity porn, Ishqiya is distinctly Chaubey’s film. As a director, Bhardwaj’s sense of violence and doom is operatic; to me his movies are always on a subtle march set to the Ride of the Valkyries. Chaubey’s aesthetic, on the other hand, is a lot more Old West.
If Sholay is your classic curry western, Ishqiya has a ton of fun redrawing concept to stretch the genre. The most interesting experiment, the one that brings it all together, is the aptly named Krishna, a master manipulator of men who works towards her own ends. Ever since Parineeta, Vidya Balan’s choice of movies has been so poor in her quest for conventional Bollywood heroine-dom, that movies like Paa seem more like recoveries than growth. In Krishna, there is at last a hint of danger and sex underneath the trademark Scowl Face which she adopted as her “attention! I’m acting now” expression from her second movie on.
Krishna is both Madonna and whore, the girl with the golden voice in front of the household shrine and the woman with a shotgun; she is whoever you need her to be, so long as you’re doing as you’re told. She scares the crap out of Khalu who hasn’t ever kidnapped so much as a cat or a dog, he tells her pathetically; but she also fires his fantasies of a genteel courtship when she leans her head against his chest and giggles like a girl. Naseeruddin Shah is as always the man – Khalu with his bootblack hair, his sepia tinted photographs, his frequently befuddled attempts at crookery, his self-consciously tender dignity and his expressions of gentility is a darling duck.
Meanwhile, Krishna sets off alarm bells in Babban who recognizes in her an animal who might well surpass him in bestiality; yet she is the first woman he ever falls for too. As Babban, Arshad Warsi does nothing to dispel my growing and wholly inappropriate crush on men with facial hair. He switches from the genial idiot persona he has mined so well in past Bollywood productions (the most famous being Circuit of Munnabhai fame, of course) to a kohl-eyed killer in the blink of an eye, and shocks you by flipping all sorts of switches along the way. Although Krishna clearly has a plan for him, you know that it can’t have been all work.
The relationships of Ishqiya violate all the codes of movies like these: the chick makes the rules, the guys both fall for her and neither really steps away for the sake of friendship (or relationship since they’re uncle and nephew), nice guys finish last (sort of), the Lakshman-Sita/ bhabhi–devar paradigm is totally twisted, the V is for Villain guy is actually just a playmate, adultery is passe when husband and wife are plotting each others’ demise, and Khalu reminds Babban that getting involved in a marital spat is a surefire way to get your ass kicked.
Sure, but it also makes for an entertaining movie.