“Ishqiya” is a very strange film. Strange, not so much in terms of content, unless you really believe there are sleepy dusty towns in north India where boys learn to use a gun before they learn to wash their own bottoms. But in terms of the way the three main characters are thrown against each other in combustions that suggest a brutal bonding between the libido and the landscape.
To cinematographer Mohana Krishna’s credit, he creates in the suburbs of Mumbai(masquerading as Gorakhpur) a kind of sweeping lazy ambience of leisurely self-indulgence.
“Ishqiya” is the kind of cinema that you can love or hate, but cannot be indifferent to. The dusty, parched, sexually and spiritually arid hinterland renders itself effectively to the characters. The uncle-nephew pair of Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi provide the kind of sweaty, grimy male bonding that we saw in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”.
The two protagonists in “Ishqiya” represent the acme of reprehensibility. Come to think of it, there isn’t one character in the plot whom you can begin to like let alone admire. Like the Naseer-Arsha-Vidya triangle the other characters are either hazy or horny, or both. There’s a businessman who sells steel on the surface and supplies illegal arms underneath. He’s supposed to represent the clan of the corrupt.
Vidya Balan’s Krishna is a conniving victim. And if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is purposefully projected into a plot that pulsates with a seedy tension and a freewheeling virile humour.
“Ishqiya” is the aesthetic version of toilet graffiti. The writing on the wall is very clear – hate these characters who live by the gun.
How the film finds a central core of gentleness in this milieu of murky machinations is another story. Or maybe it isn’t.
Debutant director Abhishek Choubey tries to create two different worlds, one of criminality and the other of compassion, within one range of vision. It’s a tall order.
Some of the sex and power play among Vidya, Arshad and Naseer’s characters are intriguing and arresting in its swift shifts of dramatic tension from one to the other.
Towards the second overture of this untried symphony of antipathy, the writer and director conspire to create a bizarre climactic spiral involving a shady business tycoon of the area whom our trio of protagonists decide to kidnap.
By the time the kidnapping plan goes horribly awry, the narrative too loses its bearings.
If the film holds you until the end it’s because of the principal performances. Naseeruddin Shah confers a rock-solid tenderness to his ageing criminal-lover’s role.
Arshad Warsi, one of the most underrated actors of our cinema, gets a rare opportunity to sink his skills into a part of a raunchy, randy rogue, out to get the neighbourhood widow to hit the sack.
But the film belongs to Vidya Balan. With a face and eyes that convey a determination to make her way through a rough patriarchal order, Vidya is tender, brittle, cunning and cool – all rolled into a bundle of bewildering emotions that unfold more through her body language than the script. She rises above the self-indulgent realism of the narrative.
A triumph for the actress. But what of the film? How do we evaluate “Ishqiya” beyond its politically-charged, verbally-lurid lunge at realism? Is the film to be applauded for forging a new language of expression? Or should that language have been used with more restrain and tact?
Frankly there are no clear and simple value judgements to be applied to “Ishqiya”. It’s partly a homage to the rugged Westerns from Hollywood, and partly an attempt to penetrate the north Indian small-town hinterland where people don’t just live with violence, they even enjoy it.
But did this film have to follow them?