So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”
Right after I posted my epic fail review of Ishqiya, bits and pieces of the film started to sink in. Many of the film’s odd choices seemed to gain a significance of their own and, before I knew it, like those clichéd second act endings, they all fell in place, presenting a whole new perspective to the film. Out of the dozen reviews I’ve read of the film, only my friend Satish Naidu’s review seemed to hit the right notes. I strongly recommend reading his review if you’ve seen the film. And yes, spoilers here too (Well, there isn’t really much in the movie that you can’t guess beforehand).
There is a post script, in Ishqiya, to the kidnap set piece where Krishna, amidst a serious argument between Babban and Khalujaan, drives the car away leaving them gaping. She might well be driving away the film there, for Ishqiya, more than anything, is about the resistance to a male view of a world by a female perspective. Ishqiya is a Western alright, with its war-torn landscape leaving no other philosophy to exist other than “might is right”. But that really doesn’t give anyone a license to call it a man’s world. The story unfolds, primarily, in the point of view of the two men, but, rather than being protagonists with clear cut objectives, they are frames of reference – a telescope – using which we view and, unfortunately, try to ‘solve’ Krishna, that obscure object of desire. Yes, they are characters of considerable depth, but they are also, ultimately, peripheral. A quick note, to begin with, about the casting of the film which seems to me like a stroke of brilliance. We have here Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, men who have rarely been the flawless heroes, who have made a career out of bumbling and imperfect protagonists. They automatically bring into the movie with them flawed male visions that belong to two different generations. Krishna is played by Vidya Balan, who has had a popular image that could well pass off as an icon of the chaste Indian female. This incongruity between what appears and what is, which defines the whole of Ishqiya, is only furthered by this distance between Balan’s image and Krishna.
Babban and Khalujaan are closer to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) than any other film character I can think of. These men are (con-) artists too, like Doinel, as exemplified in their introduction scene, where Babban tricks Mushtaq with his story and flees with the money. Like Truffaut’s character, who spent a lifetime wondering if women were magic, these men can understand the opposite sex only in terms of art or, in this case, popular cinema (where Krishna is aptly photographed like being frozen in a film frame). It is only through popular film songs that these characters are able to even express their emotions. Khalujaan may make numerous mistakes in his real life, but never does he get the composer of a song wrong. Babban believes dressing up as a movie star will help him woo the girl. As noted earlier, these are men of flesh and blood. They are deeply flawed and they realize their limitations. Babban drags back Khalujaan from his macho, decidedly Western romanticism of taking Mushtaq head-on, as if reminding him that this genre movie is no place for them. In Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Frank (Henry Fonda), upon being asked if he is a businessman, says: “Just a man”. Like Frank, these two crooks understand every shade of men and their behavioral patterns, no matter what age group they belong to. However, for these men, like Frank, women just can’t fall in any category other than in the binary setup of the mother and the whore (Khalujaan tells Krishna that he can’t tell whether she is an angel or a courtesan) that popular cinema has given them.
But Chaubey doesn’t give a comic tinge to his characters as much Truffaut does. Yes, they do deliver those funny lines, but they are serious men. They have their own issues. Babban, also true to Bollywood morality, does not want Khalujaan to sully his mother’s name. Khalujaan, on the other hand, takes his past seriously too, through his possibly deceased (possibly non-extant) sweetheart. He really does believe that he can settle down in life. But these are not their mistakes. They are, after all, real men with real emotions and problems. These are not caricatures that we can disregard easily. In any other film, they could have been the backbone of fine drama. Their real mistake, however, is in believing that they are the only ones with problems, that they are the film. The sin of these flawed men is in believing that the woman they fall for would be unflawed. Krishna driving away the car should have given them a clue. But, products of a patriarchal society and cinema that they are, they never realize that. In fact, the whole film is built upon such male perspectives that see nothing more than what they want to see. Krishna’s husband chooses a male-dominated caste war over his wife’s love. Mushtaq prefers to keep his wife as a mere voice heard over a telephone like a horoscope (announced by a Bollywood ring tone, of course). For KK, the fidelity of the male is nothing more than a small joke. Even we, the children fed on the stereotypes of Bollywood, attempt only to classify Krishna into rigid adjectives – femme fatale, all-powerful, resilient, gutsy, seductive – whereas she may be as vulnerable as the men around her.
The key is the scene where Krishna meets her husband once again. She breaks down, for the first time in the movie, revealing her vulnerability. She stands there, with her motives exposed, being emotionally hit. All this while she had been toying along with the two conmen, for she was far assured of her modus operandi. She offers tea for the man who gives her a better kidnap plan, only to deliberately fire the other one up. Krishna, in the scene in which she sleeps with Babban, clearly reveals that she is only exploiting this lucky situation that has come her way for her own good and with the assurance that and that the plan is on track. Not now. The petty goons are all down now. It’s now man on man, so to speak. It’s the only showdown this revisionist Western will have (My genre-addicted mind would have liked a couple more extreme close-ups). Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, perceptive as always, notes that Krishna is essentially an updated version of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in Once Upon a Time in the West. That, I guess, is the only kind of classification that Krishna can be subjected to. The strongest point of the movie is that it does not try to define her or push her into a single zone of existence in which she may be only be moral, immoral or amoral. She, like many of us, could well be straddling all three. What we may be having here, far from being a character study, is personal cinema in which the writer and director are sharing our own inability to understand Krishna, and by the fact that she is the only woman in the film (not considering the old woman, who might well be an aged Krishna), women in general.
We, the audience, on the other hand, are frustrated like Khalujaan because of this inability to break her down into stereotypes. When she sucks the blood out of Babban’s thumb, one is tempted to jump the gun and label her a vamp. But she might just be using another lucky opportunity there, to strengthen her chances of pulling off the kidnap. Or may be not. Krishna defies identification, which we have all been accustomed to, through standard templates reserved for women in Bollywood which, in turn, are derived from popular mythological figures. She might be sharing herself with many men, taking turns, but she is far from the ultra-faithful Draupadi that her name means. She might appear to be pining for her beloved, a la Meera, as she sings, but that pining is for something else altogether. She is like Savitri too, but she prefers dragging back her husband to death (Death and Krishna being the two people he tricked) rather than the usual way. In the final scene, she merely attempts to restore back a reality that wasn’t. When she faces her husband again, she might well have paraphrased that legendary Bresson line: “I’d rather prefer you leaving me for the love of another woman than for what you call your intellectual life“. And when Babban watches her undress, there is not only the distance of voyeuristic cinema between them, but also this literal wound of Krishna’s past, which only breaks out during the final confrontation, that adds one more layer of enigma for Babban, and consequently us.
It is the opening and closing scenes, or even shots, that really tie the movie together. The film opens with a male perspective, fading out of black, with Krishna on the bed in a reclining, arguably sexist pose. She appears nothing short of a magical being, which is an opinion only the male could have here (Let’s stick to straight orientations for now). And it is a pose that typifies the attractive woman in Bollywood cinema. From this point on, the film’s male perspective, our own “male” perspective and the Bollywood perspective get tied together. And the film closes, literally, with another male point-of-view. Here, Mushtaq watches the three walk away through the lens of his sniper gun. Khalujaan and Babban walk happily, perhaps with the idea that they’ve understood Krishna and one of them will “get the girl”. What they don’t understand is that the real trouble begins after this (This real-drama-begins-after-the-end-credits-roll facet of Ishqiya is one of the reasons why I was reminded of that Almodóvar film whose title I borrowed for the review). Their belief that they will return to a more conventional cinema zone, in which women are easily deconstructed, may well be shattered the next minute by Krishna. As the film presents a POV shot of Mushtaq watching them through the lens, the black circle closes in on the three, thereby ending the film simultaneously through our perspective, Mushtaq’s and in a manner unique to classical feel-good cinema. Chaubey’s film is cynical in a way. It breaks into a new world from within a undoubtedly male world of Bollywood and, at the end, restores that new world back to its obscured state. It unveils the groundbreaking Krishna through a male vision and, then, locks her back using the same, as if suggesting that popular cinema, itself included, will never understand “the woman“. Well, that acknowledgment is a start.