In ‘Ishqiya’ arshad warsi’s babban tells naseerudin shah’s khalujan, “sheikh apna dekh”. Apparently this is the wisdom the uncle has imparted to his nephew in their years together traversing the road; this above all sums up with amazing brevity the underlying philosophy that governs the hearts and actions of the amazing melee of characters you’ll come across in abhishek chaubey’s film. Of course, as the film progresses what becomes truly captivating is the way the primary characters will denounce this and act in ways that’s a complete refutation of this simple and fundamental way of life. When the time and opportunity for revenge or plain old haramigiri , if u like, presents itself, neither of the 3 protagonists seem capable of biting the gauntlet. Now, u may well ask, ‘so what’? They are the protagonists & the film couldn’t very well have us come away with feelings of hatred or ambiguity towards them. The brilliant thing abt chaubey’s script is that whatever they do or do not do is always in keeping with our expectations. There is neither a downward spiral into the maudlin nor a stark moment of reformation that you can point towards.
In a sense, all 3 of them are misfits – Khalujan and Babban are clearly the innocents aboard in this madcap adventure canvassing the badlands of eastern UP, vidya balan as Krishna, is the lonely and mysterious widow of vidhyadhar verma who ran an infamous abduction enterprise. Actually, I want to dwell on the balan character. Keats’ ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ was never more true than of the opening shot of the film. We are greeted by the nasal & rustic melody of rekha bharadwaj crooning “ab toh mujhe intezar nahi” amidst complete darkness. Gradually, a light dawns and the camera reveals balan lying in red saree and sindoor, resplendent in all her feminine glory. There is nothing slight about her physicality – from the violent flare of her hips to the soft cushion of her back – she is all woman, completely at ease with her voluptuous sexuality because it is after all just one of the facets of a complex love she offers to her husband vidhyadhar verma. Even the wildest vidya balan fan will not sing odes to her beauty or sensuality & yet is to her credit that she epitomizes every man’s ultimate fantasy – the woman as Mary Magdalene – both chaste and carnal, Eve the tease and Eve the innocent, as Khalujan says, he doesn’t know if she’s “pari ya randi”. I have always loved balan’s voice and delivery and this is the film that seems to do maximum justice to both.
What is amazing about her performance is that while you’re sure to sense the menace as she opens the door to provide sanctuary to these 2 bumbling idiots, she doesn’t go overboard in her black widow spider routine. Her silence and air of mystery are as much made up of cunning as dignity. If she wishes to titillate the uncle and nephew duo, it is uncharacteristically well played off. We can’t help but watch fascinated as she employs the dignified, slightly poignant, lonely widow role with the romantic Khalujan and applies tincture iodine on his injury, and then bares her teeth of steel as she cuts Babban’s finger and then promptly starts sucking on the blood. It’s been a long time since I have seen such potent sexuality unleashed onscreen. Bharadwaj Rangan in his review says that he wished the Krishna character had more menace, could evoke more chill in us. Here’s the reason I don’t think it’d have worked. She is unlike any other temptress you have previously witnessed and certainly not like the femme fatales in James Hadley Chase novels. There is a lofty purpose to her cunning, something that elevates her above the money grubbing vamps of most dime novels. It is only after the denouement that one understands her motives for behaving as she does. Also, it is interesting that chaubey leaves some ambiguity regarding her motives for allowing Babban to sleep with her. Is it just manipulative or is there a hint of loneliness and hunger too? Is she sheer will and nothing more or are there vestiges of a woman still burning at her core?
Another thing that catches your breath about Ishqiya is the set décor and milieu that the director evokes. Everything from the brass water jug to the money plant in the bottle are in perfect harmony. It is astonishing to realize that the part of India depicted in the film is as much a part of the same country as the one where companies spend millions on brand endorsements and 15-yr old school kids sit and chit chat in CCDs. There is another kid in this film too (his age is 'paanch kam bees' we are told), one wise beyond his years and with a smile as disarming as any you’re likely to come across. Adept in the ways of the crooked world he inhabits and a young recruit in the caste wars between the thakur’s and the yadav’s, even this kid with the tamancha has a code of honour he abides by which is instrumental in shaping the film’s ending.
The peripheral characters are all engrossing and deliciously eccentric in their own way – starting from the 2 love 'cuckoos' to the silent old woman with the burning torch in hand. Finally, what never ceases to amaze me is stalwarts like naseerudin shah. i'd gone to watch the film fully expecting to like arshad warsi's acting more than naseerudin shah's. after all how much more can u expect from the guy who gave us janey bhi do yaron, nishant, bazaar, umrao jaan and mandi. But the magic works yet again. Watch him as 'dil ye baccha hai ji'plays in the background and you will not be able to prevent a tear from falling, nor stop the silly grin from spreading all across your face for his vulnerability and joy are all our own. Arshad Warsi as Babban is the kind of lout who will flash a quick wink or try a quick squeeze in crowded places. But he's harmless and doesnt have the ruthlessness that'd make him an adequate match for the baddies that we meet later. Sexy, charming, devious and hilarious, he's appealing in a strange earthy way.
I think Ishqiya works largely as a result of these brilliant characterizations. Anyone doing anything extra and the whole enterprise would sink.