Saturday, 17 April 2010

Ishq, yeah!

I want to start this review by paying my tribute to the new brat pack of Hindi cinema. Yes, I’m talking about the filmmakers Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Abhishek Chaubey, Dibakar Banerjee, Dev Benegal, Madhur Bhandarkar, and all the others of their ilk. Take a bow, guys! Thank you for starting the slow but hopeful resuscitation of moribund Hindi cinema from the chiffon-Switzerland-and-sati-savitri nexus of the Chopras, Barjatyas and Johars. And I, for one, sincerely believe that you shall succeed where the Kundan Shahs, Sai Paranjpyes, Ketan Mehtas and Saeed Akhtar Mirzas fizzled out after a dazzling display of (short-lived) virtuosity and Ram Gopal Verma became a self-parody, a cinematic cannibal with dual weights of hubris and obsession for leading ladies dragging him down to the ‘Aag’ of hell. Call me an optimist, because I am.

Now then… ‘Ishqiya’. I confess that I’m not certain if the titular word is a noun (romance) or an adjective (romantic), but that’s really not important. This film is a love letter from its makers to anybody who understands the language. The film starts with a logo of VB Studio, and I hope it shall be as long-lived and popular as its Microsoft namesake. Whereas most of the current urban filmmakers in Bollywood seem to be from the Tarantino school of smart, snappy, verbose, fast-paced and overlapping narratives married to dynamic camerawork and neon-streaked lighting, this film takes the other road and becomes a Coen Brothers movie: gently paced, tersely written, and with beautiful outdoor cinematography. For a film that uses noir as one of its basic elements, it spends a lot of time in broad daylight - which is a very successful move, as it makes the night shots stand out in their warm firefly glow. The story, as I perceived it, is self-conscious but in a subtle way. While Vishal’s ‘Kaminey’ (2009) was decidedly Tarantinoesque in its urban surreality, ‘Ishqiya’ remains diligently low-key, just turning reality up a notch or two as and when needed. Instead of the slick, rain-and-blood-washed streets of the Mumbai underworld, we have the dust-choked dirt roads of Gorakhpur in rural Uttar Pradesh, where caste wars and honour killings are just another part of life. I may be putting my neck on the block here, but I really felt that ‘Ishqiya’ uses the skeleton of ‘Sholay’ (with Naseeruddin Shah playing the taciturn Iftikaar as Jai, Arshad Warsi flamboyantly channeling Veeru into Babban, and Vidya Balan’s Krishna alternating effortlessly between Vasanti and Radha) and builds on it with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s entirely a personal and subconscious realisation, so let it not colour your perception of the movie.

As the film started with a voluptuous woman in bed, languidly humming a song while the moondust of afterglow hangs in the scented air, the first thing I admired was the lighting. Noted cinematographer Soumendu Roy (a longtime collaborator of the late Satyajit Ray) had once said in an interview about 90s’ Bollywood films: “They light every scene more than necessary” – which is totally true, with characters occasionally throwing multiple shadows (or none) on the wall for no discernible reason. It’s nice to see that trend changing, and darkness seeping back into the frame. And out of this darkness emerges Krishna Verma – just another rural North Indian housewife who, after a little fun-filled post-coital bantering with her husband, diligently cooks him dinner. Right? Wrong. For she is what we fans of noir call a femme fatale – a woman with a cloud of intrigue, deception, lust and violence following her everywhere. While in some cases they turn out to be passive pawns of the cruder sex, this lady is of a different stock. She knows perfectly well the whos, whats and whys of the big bad world, and is always one step ahead of our protagonists. Which brings us to the lead pair of the film: Iftikaar and Babban, an uncle-nephew duo of small-time crooks, who make up with bravado what they lack in skills. We get introduced to them in a positively offbeat manner: drunk and dancing in their underwear on a sun-drenched riverbank as a rag-tag band belts out ‘Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh’ (a clever foreshadowing of the future). But things get steadily downhill for our heroes from there. Minutes later, they are literally standing neck-deep in their open graves, as villainous Mushtaq Bhai (Salman Shahid) – the film’s only nod to Tarantino – cackles at them with rage-tinged glee. The actor was looking strangely familiar to me (despite never having seen him before) and now I know why: he looks like Tinnu Anand’s long-lost twin brother who grew up in a borstal dreaming of being Jean Reno. Anyway, the khalu-bhanja pair gives him the slip, and runs off with 20 lakh (2 million) Rupees belonging to him. Their plan? To go to Gorakhpur, and cross the border into Nepal – with a little help from their former cellmate Vidyadhar Verma (Adil Hussain), the husband of our heroine. But, unbeknownst to them, he’s dead – the result of a gas cylinder explosion in the beginning of the movie – and his widow, although hospitable and courteous, cannot really help them in their cause. The story unfolds from there with its own twists and turns (some predictable, some not) and without giving too much away, I can tell you that it concerns the pair getting dragged into an abduction plot involving a local steel plant owner Kamalkant Kakkad a.k.a. KK (played woodenly by the wooden Rajesh Sharma) that results in a literally explosive ending.

A film like this, which involves meticulous writing and puts a lot of stress on set-pieces and body language, needs rock-solid casting, and this is where ‘Ishqiya’ scores 11 out of 10. The three lead actors have wonderful chemistry together, with Arshad Warsi as the lusty, earthy Babban and Vidya Balan as the cool-as-ice Krishna inadvertently showing the aged Iftikaar what KLPD feels like. And I must mention Naseer here to some length. I personally think of him as the Al Pacino of India, and to see the fresh-faced young man of ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’ and ‘Ijaazat’ as the weather-beaten, gaunt-cheeked yet tough-as-nails petty thief was a treat all by itself. His intense brown eyes still sparkle, his contemplative half-smile still dazzles, and his gravelly voice still enthralls. As Indiana Jones put it so aptly to Marion Ravenwood: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” And Naseer still has a lot of mileage left in him. I, for one, would love to see him run in the years to come. As for the supporting cast, they are serviceable at best, with Alok Kumar as the village teen Nandu being the most memorable.

Another aspect of this movie that I want to touch upon before I wrap up is the music. While not as great as the Gulzar-RD duo, Gulzar-Vishal is a treat for sore ears. The movie kicks off with a road song – ‘Ibn-E-Batuta’ – that has become my current trip (after ‘Kaminey’-s ‘Dhan Te Nan’ from the same team). Who would have known that the name of a fourteenth century Moroccan traveller could become the catchphrase for a rollicking song like this (voiced by a roaring Sukhwinder Singh and a growling Mika)? Counterpointing it nicely is Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s smooth-as-silk ‘Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji’, a song that reminds us – gently – that the past-his-prime Khalujaan is building rose-tinted castles in the air, which will come crashing down any time now. The conversations about classic Bollywood songs (not to mention their use in the soundtrack, like ‘Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein’ - from Gulzar’s own film ‘Kitaab’ - playing in a brothel) were little gems for us connoisseurs of the same, and my personal favourite was the squabble that Krishna and Iftikaar have over the composer of the Lata number ‘Kuchh Dil Ne Kahaa’ (from ‘Anupama’) while waiting for their quarry.

On the downside (and there are quite a few), the narrative lacked clarity, and while the dialogues crackled and snapped, the interpersonal dynamics of the characters, as well some of their motivations, were occasionally confusing, not to mention the very pedestrian ending that redeemed itself somewhat in the last shot. And Vidya Balan sometimes looked a little too urbane and glossy for her character. But the ensemble cast really made me forget the weaknesses and the end of the movie found me with a goofy grin on my face. Abhishek, Vishal & co. had sent me a love letter, and this is my reply (which will never reach them). Despite all its flaws, ‘Ishqiya’ is indubitably a fascinating movie. Surely I’ll outgrow it sooner or later, but for now… “aisi uljhi nazar unse hathti nahin.”


Anonymous said...

Lovely review :) I really want to see this, have heard many nice things about it---and you have added to the feeling!

Avec Maître said...

Thank you, Memsaab! :-) You're one of my inspirations in trying my hand at reviewing.

Joy Acharyya said...

AMio dekhalm,,, Dui baar. AMi ekta review likhechhilam..kintu save kortey giye case kheye delete hoye gechhey..
eba rasol kothai..byapokkkkk laglo amar cinema-ta.. Naseer eai boyesheo ki korchhey re bhai... pagol!!!!! Sobar dekha uchit cinema-ta.. tobey dilaogue delivery -ta amar mone holo arektu clarity peley bhalo hoto.ekey to pure hindi noi, ektu jorano laagchhilo...
Tor review-ta osadharon....

Peripat(h)etic said...

I really really liked the review...and in many ways felt sorry, that my way of viewing it was nowhere near this vision!
I really cant decide whether i liked it more for the writing, or the review per se...the language, as lucid and "terse" as that of the movie, i guess...:-)