WARNING – this is a spoiler ridden review. By now you have either seen Ishqiya or never will, but still it is fair to warn you.
There used to be the Ram Gopal Varma factory, where assistants eventuallygot to be directors, and create wonderful films. But now the factory is defunct and missed. Into this vacuum have stepped Vishal Bharadwaj and his former AD Abhishek Choubey. Choubey directs Ishqiya in a gritty style that may seem heavily influenced by Bharadwaj’s. Except that what once seemed real in Bharadwaj films is rendered a little stagey after one sees Ishqiya. East UP and Gorakhpur can only be this real if you actually get off a bus into town! And the setting never overwhelms the film, it just makes everything more genuine. In Omkara, which I happen to love, there is scene in an alley when Vivek Oberoi loses his cool, compare it to the alley scene where the kidnapping goes nearly awry, or where Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Krishna (Vidya Balan) stalk the kidnapping victim. Or the rural setting of the jalsa (Beedi sequence) in Omkara to the setting where Iftekhar (Naseer) is on a mission to steal a vehicle and sits drinking chai in a dhaba. The atmosphere is palpably real in Ishqiya and showcases a story that is full of surprises but in a most understated way – to the point that some missed the whole point and called Ishqiya pointless!
Two guys on a run with stolen money (it is neither important nor stated how or why), being chased by the big underworld boss baddie Mushtaaq Bhai (Salman Shahid – who happens to be the jeeju of one of the criminals), find shelter in the home of a widow. Vidya plays Krishan, a cultured and near sophisticated rustic, one who is into music, sings divinely (who would not if you had Rekha Bharadwaj providing the voice!), and she allows them to stay with her. Babban and Iftekhar are both immensely taken with the lady, though demure and seemingly very chaste she does (unintentionally?) beckon in a beguiling way! Then Mushtaaq Bhai catches up with them, there is a replay of the drama of the phone call from the wife, our petty criminals go looking for the hidden money and find it is GONE! Given a short time to get the money and with they lady under threat from the goons, she helps them devise a kidnapping scheme to recoup the money. The victim is an unlikely one, except he has money and a mistress on the side! As soon as he is captured we begin to see the real Krishna emerge from behind the cultured facade! Is she a femme fatale playing one man against the other? Why was this man picked for the kidnapping? What is the reason for all the gas cylinders in every room, while KrishnaJi cooks on a wood stove? What is her motive? Is it simply self-preservation? Chaubey takes us through these thoughts at a dizzy pace, and while we are still wondering what on earth is going on, he reveals Krishan’s motive! Hell hath no fury as that of a woman scorned – and that is the pillar the story rests on. Without giving us much time to adjust to this, the film careens to its explosive climax and then the truth behind all the femininity, demure and coy beckoning dawns on us. The Haraamzadi has her own game plan and she plays it extremely well, it is all for Ishq after all, that of a deadly variety. And then to end the film Chaubey gives wink to a Casablanca like ending with Mushtaaq Bhai telling his wife he is still on the look-out as he watches the criminals walk away, he is too fond of the cat and mouse game to actually deal with the mice!
The story is simply wonderful, told at a languid pace at the start and then building feverishly, keeping us lulled into the comfort zone of this being yet another treasure and chase film. The locales are wonderful, and the part-urban part-rural milieu of Gorakhpur is stunningly presented. Yes the language is rustic and epithets fly from all characters, but yet the dialogs have a restraint that Omkara lacked. The music is divine and hear the Guru does not let the Chela down. Vishal’s compositions are stunning, and showcase the most brilliant lyrics in a LONG LONG while (well since Gulaal!). Only a man of years who has lived and loved would write the way Gulzar does “Umr saari baras ke sufaid ho gayi, kaari badri jawani ki chat ti nahin”!! And the ghazals by Rekha are stunning. The music interweaves with the narrative and enriches it, making a heady mix.
Naseer breathes life into Iftekhar, and seems to enjoy playing this role of the enchanting romancing scoundrel. Vidya gives her most credible performance to date. As the seductive Krishna she is spot on. But the show stealer is Arshad Warsi, as Babban he creates a memorable rogue who mouths the best line in the film – in response to Naseer’s “Mujhe us haraamzadi se ishq ho gaya hai” – he quips – “Aapka Ishq Ishq, aur mera ishq sex?”
Ishqiya is a wonderfully Indian film, spins a great tale aided by fine performances and mesmerizing music. It is a big step forward for Hindi cinema – and I am glad it is non-Mumbai centric and represents a part of India the makers are intimately familiar with.