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.

Ishqiya

Once Upon A Time In The North 
(Image courtesy: NDTV)

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.

[Ishqiya Trailer]

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.

 
Rating: Whatever