Movie Review: Ishqiya - Sex and Sensibilities

February 12, 2010

Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya opens with a shot that will rank among the most sensuous ones in Hindi cinema. The camera zooms in on a half asleep Krishna (Vidya Balan), as Rekha Bharadwaj's husky voice breaks into a couplet on the end of longing. The aesthetic here, as in much of Vishal Bharadwaj's work, is that of the finest Urdu poetry and literature. Indeed, the two male perspectives on love, personified by Babban (Arshad Warsi) and his Khaalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah), respectively mirror the majaazii (figurative/sensual) and haqiiqii (real/spiritual) layers of meaning in Urdu poetry, the name Krishna underscoring the bhakti element.

Babban's sexuality, then, is overtly carnal - he reads Hindi soft-porn, likes catchy numbers, frequents whorehouses, and plays peeping Tom on Krishna (though she knows this, and is simply seducing him). A line in the fly-by-night playfulness of word-czar Gulzar's penned to perfection Ibn-e-Batuta could well be a description of Babban: "uR uR aawe, daane chuge, uR jaawe chiRiyaa phurr" (the sparrow flies in, pecks at the grain, and flies off). It takes an actor of Arshad Warsi's cool and acumen to endear such a character to the audience.

Babban's Khalujaan, by contrast, is a man of refined sensibilities, an old-school romantic who cherishes the Hindi film melodies of Jaidev and Hemant Kumar. The closest he comes to voyeurism is listening in on Krishna's riyaaz. Krishna is something of a goddess to Khaalujaan; he even refers to her as "Krishnajii". His song is "dil to bacchaa hai jii", excellent in its composition (Bharadwaj's use of the accordion gives it that old world charm), its poetry ("saaree jawaanii qatraa ke kaaTii, peerii meN Takraa gaye haiN") and its filming (Chaubey's camera seeks out the beauty in simplicity, the girl on a bus, the cook chopping almonds in a dhaabaa - just the sort of imagery that proves that the Hindi film song can be a thing of beauty when it's done right). So when Khalujaan sees Krishna boogie woogie with Babban to a Mika Singh number, in Babban's clothes at that, it isn't just jealousy he feels; it's also the inevitable disillusionment of a romantic who has seen his ideals in tatters - Krishna's sacrilegious fall from grace. Naseeruddin Shah's finesse as an actor comes through in the expression of this disillusionment and loss on his face. How fitting that the very same tragedy of a hopeless romantic was writ large on the very same face, two mentor-generations ago, in the climax of Gulzar's Ijaazat!

This tug-of-war of sexualities, and its result, are reminiscent of a Manto short, wherein a civil servant's bourgeois double standards on sex prevent him from meeting the advances of a village belle, who is eventually whisked away for a roll in the hay by a truck driver with no such qualms. Like Manto, Chaubey, Bharadwaj and co-writer Sabrina Dhawan subvert Khalujaan's romanticism to expose his attraction to Krishna. "So your love is love, while mine is lust?" asks a justifiably indignant Babban - the haqiiqii is the majaazii, and attraction is attraction even when it's dressed up as poetry. Neither are the writer-trio content with fitting Krishna into one of the male moulds of Eros or Agape - she's a woman with a bit of both and some. When Khalujaan complains, "You can never tell if a woman is a houri or a whore", Krishna shoots back, "Who are you to call me names?"; and later quips to Babban, "(Khaalujaan) can't swallow the truth; it's stuck in his throat". From an iron-willed urban mother in Balki's Paa to an earthy seductress here, Vidya Balan emerges as the most intelligent actress in present day Hindi cinema.

The sexual politics play out in the UP hinterland where politics of another kind is prevalent. In a clever shift of perspective, we're shown how the city world must appear to those outside its privileges. "In the city, you pelt a mongrel with a stone, and hits a billionaire", we're told. Here, too, there is the Mantoesque use of sex (the S&M kind, no less) to expose the seamier side of respectable society. I've said this before but it bears repeating. Bharadwaj's cinema, and Chaubey's in his footsteps, is centered on characters who don't usually figure in the urban viewer's main stream of consciousness. That the proceedings are peppered with top notch humour is simply a result of the meticulous craftsmanship of Chaubey's team of writers. They're well aware of the serious business that comedy is. Sure, the idiomatic wit and the foul language get our laughs, but they also evoke empathy. Thus, unlike most Hindi films, here we're laughing with the characters not at them. In Ishqiya, Bhopalis with kohl-lined eyes aren't comic garnish (who can forget Jagdeep as Soormaa Bhopali ?); they're the dish itself.

In his production house, Vishal Bharadwaj has created an ecosystem where the stories of the dusty landscapes of villages and small towns tend to flourish. To tell such stories is, in itself, a political act. But to do so in a manner that the viewer also gets her money's worth of entertainment takes genius. The Hindi film viewer has for too long been held captive to the mindset that films are either meaningful or entertaining. Ishqiya reminds her that they can be both.

Not content with being the umpteenth telecom engineer, PH decided to become the umpeenth blogger.
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