Don’t let the promos fool you – Ishqiya is not a crime caper, it is not about outlaws, or guns or robbers or money, it is not about crime at all. The singular theme that Ishqiya is concerned with, is passion, with a capital P, and all the forms in which it manifest itself – love, lust, compassion, deceit, even vengeance. And so, instead of being a narrative peppered with event after event, the film is a kettle of emotions and instincts simmering on low heat, where love is a war game, and secrets and lies, and deception and pretence, are all fair parts of it.
Set against the backdrop of the Uttar Pradesh underworld, ostensibly it is a love triangle, between small time crooks Khaaloo-jan (Shah) and Babban (Warsi), and Krishna (Balan), the beguiling widow of an underworld henchman. Taking refuge from the wrath of the barely-sane gangster Mushtaq (Shahid) in the widow’s home, the two are, by turn, taken in by the charms of their hostess, but she is different things to each. To the older, romantic Khaaloo-jan she is soft and vulnerable; with the young lothario Babban she is tough and unflinchingly sexual. And when their carefully planned caper goes awry, already-ambiguous loyalties become even more suspect. Love and lucre have never been the best of bedfellows after all.
Though Ishqiya comes to us from the house of Vishal Bhardwaj, it is directed by debutant Abhishek Chaubey. Still, it is not hard to see Bhardwaj’s influence on the visual and thematic aesthetic of the film – the earthiness, the moral ambiguities, the mercurial nature of human relationships, the undefined motives behind how characters behave and interact. For some that might be a problem, the filmmaker not spelling out to the T why these people do what they do, particularly where the character of Krishna is concerned. But in refusing to delineate her every motivation in order to make her easily (and boringly) fathomable, the filmmaker makes her a compelling cinematic character, an enigma whose frailties cannot be explained away by defining her.
Cinematographer Mohana Krishna captures the rugged lyricism of the musty streets of Gorakhpur, lensed through a dust-swept, ochre palette, which is complemented not only by Bhardwaj’s eclectic song score, but also the liberal use of UP vernacular in the dialogue, including some choice profanities. “Kaisa lag riya hoon?”, a spruced up Babban asks Krishna; her howler of a response can’t be reproduced here unfortunately, but suffice to say you won’t be looking at the names of chemical compounds quite the same way again.
The cast is not only top-notch, but also on top of its game. Our very own Salman Shahid, in the small but standout ‘villainous’ role, grinds and grunts and spits out his dialogue with relish, illustrating the fine line between the clown and the sociopath. Arshad Warsi, suitably kohl-ed and oiled as a man in servitude to his libido (which, to be fair though, has a direct line to his heart) creates a memorable dark twin to Circuit from Munna Bhai. As for Shah, if there is an Institute of Awesome-ology somewhere on the planet, it owes the man a long overdue honorary doctorate. Most refreshingly though, Balan finally breaks out of that matronly behen-ji image that she has been saddled with for so long, and offers up Krishna as an intelligent, sensual creature, a woman of few words but with a fire in her belly – the epitome of that very desi epithet, namkeen.
For the regular moviegoer, Ishqiya IS a tough sell; it is not a ‘story’ film, but a three-way character pas de deux. Give in to the passion, though, and you will be rewarded.