Thanks to debutant filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey (who shares the writing credits of Kaminey (2009)), I’ve been able to watch a film that is absolutely unprovocative, after a long time. As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema hall trying to recollect what felt like a distant memory, like the story of a film that a friend had recited when you were half asleep. Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) is a film that exists in some kind of a cinematic void, with only barebones of a relationship with its predecessors. Chances are that you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you thought the film would stink and disappointed if you expected too much from it. I fear that even if I toss a coin to find my stance regarding the film, it would land on its edge. What can you really say about a film that’s got a set of aesthetics tangible enough to arouse interest and uneven enough to restore your smugness, characters quirky enough to hold your attention and set pieces inefficient enough to allow you to not give a damn about them and a knowledge of cinema that’s impressive enough to tease us with the film’s choices and unambitious enough to not go all the way? Ishqiya is a film that seems to have landed, with considerable luck, smack dab in the eye of a cyclone whereby the film neither attracts nor repels, but just sits, like Bill Murray, in a vacuum. OK, this is getting too abstract.
Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew, Babban (Arshad Warsi), are two small time crooks who hit the road after getting their hands on a hefty sum of money. With nowhere to run for cover, they, somehow, land up in a village near the city of Gorakhpur where they find refuge at the residence of an old acquaintance, hoping to cross the national border into Nepal. After putting up with some dodging by their hostess, Krishna (Vidya Balan), they come to know that the man they have come here seeking has been long dead. By a tragic turn of events and the inevitable need to proceed to the second act, the money they’ve been carrying around gets pinched just as the duo get tracked down by the true owner of the money. With one last chance given, the pair, working on a plan charted out by Krishna, decide to kidnap a big shot in the city and make enough money to pay back the stolen sum and to settle down for life. But then, both of them eat the forbidden fruit as they fall for Eve – Krishna – who, in turn, does not give a clear indication to either one of them. To get a clearer sense of the film’s script, take Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (1993, co-written by Ram Gopal Varma, whose film Rann, incidentally, opens this week and ) and strip down all its grand set pieces, action genre elements and ensemble cast. Bland? Yes.
The central conceit of Ishqiya seems to be that of a Western. The literally explosive opening sets the tone for the tale that’s going to unfold in this outwardly serene yet war-torn land. Speaking of war-torn lands, there are far too few shots of the landscape of the village which is really sad, for what’s a Western without the Wild West?! Apart from this basic glitch, you have broad syntax of the Western more or less intact. There are the typical outsiders – two of them, in this case – who enter a completely alien townscape and find themselves trapped in the local gang wars. These are perfect “road people” that we are talking about. Then there’s Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ennio Morricone-esque score that does a whole lot of good to the film. There’s even an ending where the triumphant “lone rangers” ride off into the sunset. But the fatal blow to this attempt at a wonderful transposition of a foreign genre into an indigenous landscape is dealt by the largely inept development of the protagonists. Let’s make no mistake about this. The Western genre has always been, primarily, about morality, about the need to hold a moral ground in an amoral and hostile environment and about the validity of one’s own moral standing (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – it’s all taken apart, right in the title!), thanks to which they retain a timeless, philosophical quality. Ishqiya, unfortunately, turns a blind eye to this requirement.
The lead characters here, on the other hand, are presented with no formidable moral choices at all. If I remember correct, there are exactly two points in the film where Khalujaan has to make a moral decision (the same goes for Babban, who isn’t much different, although we are led to believe otherwise, early in the film). The first is when he is asked to take part in a kidnapping and the second, when he is asked by Babban to kill Krishna. In both cases, Chaubey cuts away too quickly, sacrificing quality drama to carry forward the plot. This moral imbalance is only furthered by the presence of the most important and well rounded character in the film, Krishna, who, thank heavens, for once, does not advertise her moral universe using monologues or outbursts. She constructs her own moral fabric wherein she does not make a fuss about kidnapping a man to get what she wants. Here’s a married woman who does not mind seducing two men simultaneously as long as it helps her purpose (It’s not for nothing that her name is Krishna). She doesn’t flinch one bit to knock off her beloved husband just because he had ditched her earlier. So we have the all-powerful Krishna, who can go any length to get what she wants, on one side of the see-saw and the pair of charlatans, who are ready to even lick boots for survival, on the other. Right there, the moral tension is lost and film turns away from being character-driven, which is how it starts out as, to, sadly, being plot-driven.
There’s really no problem with that except when you don’t provide any emotional anchor to root for a character (I’m going old school just because the mode of discourse Ishqiya adopts is generic). What happens here, as a result, is that we are only indifferent to the very many actions and gestures unfolding on screen. Consider the sequence where Krishna holds the duo hostages for one last time. This moment is followed by the duo tricking Krishna and getting the pistol back from her. Genre grammar tells us that dramatic tension should be cranked up when at least one of the parties is in power. No. We just don’t give a damn and wait for the next plot point. We don’t feel anything when Babban slaps Krishnaa following this. Why? May be because we never really sided with any of these characters. Only Naseeruddin Shah, with his characteristic quirks and improvisation, adds some flavor to Khalujaan. But even his character is presented with no real challenge in the script and, instead, is made to move along with the plot. Neither are our sentiments with the pivotal Krishna, who is but another instance of the militant brand of feminists “New Bollywood” cinema has been endorsing for some time now. In an attempt to break away from the stereotype of the divine, chaste female who sacrifices herself for her man, these films have resorted to the opposite end of the spectrum where the woman is the ultimate destroyer, which, I think, is equally questionable.
There is something very strange and intriguing, not necessarily bad, about all these characters in Ishqiya. Take the two crooks, Khalujaan and Babban, who, although played by stars, aren’t really heroes or even brave men. All they desire is to survive and, if possible, get the girl (Heck, they start their journey from the grave they have dug for themselves!). They do not wish to outwit the owner of the money they’ve stolen from. They don’t attempt to exploit the gang war for their benefit or for anyone’s (These are not Yojimbos!). They don’t carry out the kidnapping successfully. Why, they even require the help of a bumbling police force and an old woman to pull off the final stunt. These are truly flawed characters. All this takes these characters away from genre cinema, which Ishqiya seems to gleefully build upon, towards realism. In fact, call it the irony of Bollywood cinema, these characters seem so multi-dimensional when they are supposed to play cardboards. Even Krishna’s husband, who is allotted not more than ten screen minutes, feels true to life (and is, sadly, played ‘realistically’!). It is as if these real-life characters have been nudged into a genre movie after being given a brief and asked to improvise their way out of it (opposite of what Tarantino generally does). This does sound really interesting, but it never really amounts to anything. The actual triumph, in fact, comes in the form of a minor character – the owner of the stolen money – who is, probably, the only character who knows where he is and, thankfully, gets to close the film.
The first half hour is perhaps when the film is at its finest, with the relationship between characters being established using well choreographed compositions, and where the feminist stance of the film is at its most commendable. Early on, when both the audience and the two men are struggling to understand what kind of a person Krishna is, she is, fittingly, photographed almost exclusively behind bars, through doorways and within closed structures, as if she’s dodging analysis. We are even led to believe that she is like Meera, but it turns out that she’s far from a woman who pines for her man who’s gone away (This Meera doesn’t mind two more men meanwhile!). And at the end of the film, she’s seen out in the vast open walking peacefully with these two men, with nothing to hide. However, this attention to composition isn’t always consistent and the film, for most of its runtime, loses track of its own aesthetics. This kind of tapering off of intensity is visible within separate set pieces of the film too. What start out as a gritty genre pieces end up nowhere. The kidnap set piece, to cite one example, begins with standard thriller procedures but, eventually, moves towards deadpan comedy wherein it’s the common public that carries out the kidnap. This kind of attempt to work from within and, then, out of genre templates may have been intentional on part of Chaubey, but it doesn’t exactly give a whack. It doesn’t really hurt the film either. The film, somehow, seems to neutralize itself. Go stare at it if you want.