In the beginning of Ishqiya, Babban (Arshad Warsi) tells the story of a female parrot who was troublesome and uncouth, and needed to be tamed. So her owner takes her to a house with two male parrots, both so well mannered that they often chant words from the Quran. In the new home, the female parrot is immediately locked in a cage and the male parrots get excited. And then… Babban never quite reveals the punch line. Thus begins the tangy and risqué rollercoaster of a film by debutant director Abhishek Chaubey and producer Vishal Bhardwaj, which boldly hurtles through crimes and passion in eastern Uttar Pradesh and eventually finishes Babban’s story for him. And what a punch line it is!
Babban and Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) are two crooks that take off with their boss’s money and arrive in Gorakhpur looking for an old friend for help. When they arrive at his house, they discover he is dead and meet his widow Krishna (Vidya Balan) who takes the two men in. This kicks off one of the most tantalizingly enjoyable love triangles we have witnessed in a while, running parallel to the world of crime and deceit that the duo has brought into Krishna’s life. The film adds a new dimension to the rustic and dangerous world of Omkara that Vishal Bhardwaj created. It lets you revel in the thrills of the precarious lifestyle while at the same time subtly highlighting the ills that are faced by that part of India. For example, Babban meets Nandu, a fifteen-year-old boy who “learned how to use a gun before he knew how to wash his bottom.” Nandu then shows Babban the hub of caste-based gangs that thrive in eastern U.P., and later Khalujaan and Babban learn about the kidnapping nexus that thrives there. There’s also a mention of arms being smuggled in from Nepal.
Ishqiya crosses several lines and is unapologetically adult. In this lies its main strength. It doesn’t ever attempt to cater to a wholesome family entertainment type of audience (rarely do Vishal Bhardwaj productions try), and instead is perfectly content with the way it is. The film is essentially about three characters that clash and bond at the same time. In fact, it is these interactions between the three leads that make the film what it is. The credit for this goes to the writers Vishal Bhardwaj, Sabrina Dhawan, and director Abhishek Chaubey. They have created characters that you’d thoroughly enjoy living through vicariously. Krishna is the most complex, and perhaps most fascinating of the lot. At first glance she is the demure domestic sari-clad widow (yet never does she wear white). She has a tender musical side to her, occasionally crooning haunting melodies (vocals by the fantastic Rekha Bhardwaj). At the same time she is tough, independent and completely unpredictable. She knows exactly what she is doing and is not ashamed of it. Watching the beautiful sari-clad Vidya Balan spew foul language is a sight to behold – it’s unsettling but completely believable. Khalujaan is the wiser, more level-headed of the three who sees love through rose-tinted glasses. The scene where he cheekily suggests to Krishna that she take the “khalu” out of “khalujaan” when addressing him smacks of classic Bollywood charm. Babban is the polar opposite – rash, hot-headed, and shameless – yet full of respect for Khalujaan even when he learns they are both in love with the same woman. The scene in the van right after Khalujaan sees Babban and Krishna together is thick with tension, and is one of the many instances where excellent writing, skillful direction and sparkling performances gel so well together.
The songs in Ishqiya flow effortlessly with the narrative. While Ibn-E-Batuta is the obvious rage (in the same vein as Beedi Jalaile and Dhan Te Nan), Dil To Bachcha Hai is the true gem in the soundtrack. It boasts of the same lyrical poetry of Naina Thag Lenge in Omkara and is a song that should be cherished for years to come. Its placement in the narrative is just too perfect with the old romantic Khalujaan merrily journeying on a bus to thoughts of Krishna while Babban is lustful and inching closer to her back in her house. The two tracks by Rekha Bhardwaj are the icing on the cake for Krishna’s character. They represent the tender side of her, lost in the serene innocence of her music. Besides the original soundtrack, there is also a steady stream of Hindi film music references that help to really flesh out the characters of Khalujaan and Babban. Scenes with Khalujaan are usually backed by the classics of S.D. Burman and Hemant Kumar while Babban has the accompaniment of contemporary hits, often item numbers. Even their boss has the song Ae Meri Zohrajabeen as his ringtone for every time his wife calls.
The only time Ishqiya falters is towards the end. The climax seems a bit too convenient for a narrative that otherwise took each turn so cleverly. But that too is done well and doesn’t turn the viewer off.
Ishqiya is full of stellar performances, including the supporting cast. I would go with Vidya Balan as the pick of the lot. She makes every move and nuance of Krishna look completely natural and delivers a powerful performance. Both Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi are also in top form, and make a delightful “buddy” pair. However, the true winner in this film is the writing, packed with a compelling narrative and zesty dialogues coming at you one after another. One such line sums up many aspects of the film, the characters, and I suspect will be ingrained in film buff lore, is when Babban says to Khalujaan: “Kya mamu, tumhara ishq ishq, hamara ishq sex?” Perfect.