Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bizarre Chors, Motherly Whores: Ishqiya and the Underworld Chic

“Surrender,” the gangster moll tells her underworld lover, citing sections of the Indian Penal Code in which he cannot quite be convicted. She longs for the company of her fugitive mate, and the respect she must be planning for her child to be conceived some future day.
He says he plans to. He hopes his benefactors’ political party will come to power in three months. If not, he says, he will “cylinder.”
“Surrender,” she corrects him, “not cylinder.”
The mispronounced surrender becomes a teasing metaphor, turning a symbol of devotion into an explosive instrument, as Ishqiya winds through a tale of love, longing, sex, violence, competition and the eternal mysteries of life in the rugged gangster-land movie set in the rural zones of Uttar Pradesh. Here caste wars and crime meet the Freudian rivalries of men and women fighting over each other.
They are all lovers, or Ishqiya, in this hyper-realistic saga woven around the common attraction of a foster-father and young nephew duo (Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi) for the abandoned moll whose persona’s layers are as engaging as the thickening plot.
Look at Mushtaq, the caricatured gang leader who torments the duo, listening only to his wife who calls him on the cellphone that plays, “O meri zohra jabeen.”
Look at Iftikhar (Naseer), who plays a quiz mastermind on old Bollywood songs as he cuddles up with Krishnaji, the gangster widow that he tries to woo – and one who makes him peel garlic over musical banter.
Look at Babban (Warsi) who frequents whores but turns on his rugged, boyish charm to seduce the homely woman and anger his competitor-guardian.
Look at Krishnaji (Vidya Balan) who conspires for a crime, plays the tanpura, exchanges sublime musical notes and then gives in to the raw advances of a seductor.
Look at the woman who runs Mona beauty parlour as she plays the small-town mistress in cheap lingerie laced with promises of eternal love.
Look at her secret lover who stutters through industry, worship, prosperity and dubious devotion to mistress.
“So your love is love and my love is sex?” Babban asks his uncle of sorts, turning an unintended spokesman for the new sexuality of the Bollywood woman.
It is okay now for her straddle a troika of men, even as she craves for the social respect, mysteriously exhibited in a cocktail of wriggly filmsong shakes in jeans and shades on the one hand and the humming of a soulful classic as she flips phulkas in a seedha-pallu saree.
Is Krishnaji (played with surprising aplomb by Vidya Balan) for real?
In director Abhishek Chaubey’s saga schooled in producer Vishal Bhardwaj’s mentoring, the mother and the mistress dance in the same persona, surprising and shocking her menfolk as he does us.
This is a new idiom for Bollywood, mixing elements of Shyam Benegal, Quentin Tarantino and the eternal Shakespeare, who inspired Bhardwaj’s Omkara set in the same country.
Omkara, Kaminey and Ishqiya form an unintended triology of underworld chic of the Hindi belt, complementing and contrasting another uintended triology from the Karan Johar school – Kurbaan, New York and My Name Is Khan set in exotic overseas locations.
If the KJo school looks at the international terror that visits skyscrapers, the VB school peeps into the hearts and minds of the people that supply its raw version in the rural hinterland.
Ishqiya comes in the league that is spelling a new wave in alternative cinema--blending social realism with literary depth and yet somehow managing storylines and musical narratives that stay mainstream.
Pictured with a camera that makes a Cartier-Bresson or Raghu Rai photofeature come alive on celluloid, and musical motifs that blend with the mysterious motives of its multiple protagonists, Ishquia has elements of an epic narrative as characters plunge headlong into events that make them lose themselves in a labyrinth of violence, hatred and competitiveness – all in the elusive quest for love and acceptance.
This is not the message of love sent in a Page 3 half-page ad This is the focus on the human heart that is as capable of deceit as it is of sacrifice in its quest for love.
If you watch Ishqiya, the next time you chuckle at a Mayawati statue, you might connect it with a Dalit boy called Nandu, who takes the gun to defend his lot as they fight the Thakurs who dishonour their womenfolk.
If you watch Monica Bedi in a reality show, you might just spend an extra second spotting Krishnaji in her.
If you watch the Breaking News tag chronicling the heinous crime of a previously unheard-of Hindi belt gangster on AajTak, you might just pause and wonder if there is inside the gun-runner a Verma, going home in stealth to eat puffed phulkas burnt in the corners by a woman swathed in love unexplainable in editorial columns
You might just recall a woman called Phoolan Devi, who, long long before she became the Bandit Queen, was a gangster’s moll not far from Chambal river.
As the tale that weaves kidnapping and gangsters reaches its denouement, Ishqiya’s characters are lost, but not their quest for love.
As cylinders blow up in tall fires that burn a barnyard home with its beautiful-brown interiors in the tender village landscape, serene water flows in a canal over which the characters walk across a bamboo bridge.
The bamboo bridge is hard enough to walk over, but comes with an unmistakeable fragility. That bridge must be an Ishqiya torn between devotional surrenders and explosive cylinders.


  1. Your writing on 'Ishqiya' (I see you chose to write a different, and proper, spelling) is edgier and more wholesome than the film itself. Somehow, i found the film to open too many windows and getting more breezy and sun-burnt than it intended or had the guts for.

    It had some of the best etched characters (a VB staple now), some really fabulous lines (again, some too fabulous for its own space, like the opening lines with too much Urdu), some great philophosizing on love-sex-and-dhokha (Dibakar's highly-awaited next has this name, btw) - but i felt it all didn't add up to be as epic a piece as the parts seem to suggest.

    Loved your closing paras abt the connections the film gives, esp. in today's more-info less-insight age of TV journalism, and i think that's a unique take only you can provide. But then again, for people who have seen Poorvaanchal, if not the characters but even the settings and possibilities, the film doesn't go to the next level. For the rest (which is actually 95 percent of India) - a lot of lingo-characters-craziness (and even Nandu's sadness) should be very exciting.

  2. @varun-- I misspelt it first and then didnt bother to correct the whole lot. Must do it now
    The film is overambitious and it shows in the overdone climax but I would give it a lot for the camera, dialogues, storyline and characters.
    LSD--I wanted to use the term in the piece, but it slipped off when I sat down at the comp.

  3. Hi Madhavan,

    I like yr take on Ishquiya...

    For me I like the way a woman's needs, deeds and thoughts have been brought out in the movie through the character of Krishnaji. While she longs for her lover her husband... she emotionally connects and feels secure with Iftikar and physically attracted to Babban... There is absolutely no justification for any of these feelings... and thats what for me take the cake...

  4. Hi,
    I think your take on Ishkiya was spot on. I saw it and thought the movie was sublime

  5. Loved the film and your post.. It does justice to the film and the core elements it incorporated. Although the narrative did fall short in the first half making it very repetitive, the film still left one with a mixture of feelings and they have stayed with me. That is the where Mr. Choubey's craft must be complimented.


  6. Thank you, Karan. It touches you somewhere