Sunday, January 31, 2010


Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Vidya Balan
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Runtime: 125 min. (citation needed)
Verdict: A fascinating psychological exploration, and about the roots of the film-noir genre.
Genre: Thriller, Romance, Drama, Crime

(Note: I realize that a comprehensive review to Mr. Chaubey’s film and its methods are impossible without discussing the details of the plot, which surely might spoil the nature of the film experience. Ishqiya is quite a motion picture, one you should watch, and then if needed you would better come across and read the review. So, yes, consider this a spoiler alert. You’ve been warned.)

        A cynical tone. The femme fatale.
        If we choose to assemble fans of the noir genre and, in our eagerness to define it, ask them to submit two attributes each, I suspect the consensus would surround the two mentioned above. What is cynicism but an inability to trust? And what is the femme fatale but an object that physically manifests this cynicism and thus the inability to trust. Why do we find it so difficult to trust? Even in our daily worlds. I find that aspect of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull so profound, where he chooses his object of mistrust to be a blonde and then demonstrates all the way how this inability to trust doesn’t lay on the object but in the cynical mind of the male. And then he goes onto reveal why. I believe, dear reader, inability to trust, of any nature so to speak, has its roots in the low self-confidence, an inferiority complex, an insecurity we have for that particular facet of our lives. Jake La Motta was insecure about his manhood. Such insecurity, such a complex, I suspect is the cause of the origins of the noir genre in its earliest forms.
        And that is what Mr. Bhardwaj seems to be exploring in his films too, most of them different examples of the noir genre. Consider Omkaara, and the seed of mistrust that the father sows in the titular character, right at the start. Omkaara doesn’t care of it then, or it doesn’t ever show in that steely-resolved face of Mr. Devgan, but he does ultimately. And that is because, deep beneath, there is a fundamental insecurity inside of him. It is all the more apparent in the stammering good-brother in Kaminey. Mr. Bhardwaj consciously develops his female characters in a gaze of uncertainty, only to turn the tables and reveal the deep-seated insecurities of the male characters that are echoed within us. For the most part in Kaminey, we never trust the integrity of Ms. Chopra’s, for she is a liar, and we so conveniently assume if she is lying she must be upto something sinister, only to reveal later that the lies were wrong means to gain a sweet end. Somehow these women end up morally upstaging their male counterparts, who in the end come across as silly and small people.
        Such is the nature of Mr. Chaubey’s Ishqiya, and if I discuss a part of Mr. Bhardwaj’s work, it is because I suspect the relationship between the two goes way beyond a director-screenwriter equation. You see, Mr. Chaubey has been a screenwriter for most of Mr. Bhardwaj’s films, and if the both swap seats only to cause the former’s debut film as a director, I guess it doesn’t necessarily change much, except for that Mr. Chaubey seems to be a far better visual stylist than Mr. Bhardwaj. Or let us say one more to my liking, because he seems to have a penchant for still camera, which as we gradually realize is precisely placed on almost every occasion. Yes, there’re moments when an edit feels inadvisable, or obligatory, but let us just say it is nothing compared to the film’s ultimate misgiving, which is no less than a blunder (I shall discuss it later) and choose to ignore this one completely. The script is fine, laced with the rural caste-political situation of Bihar I have only heard from friends of mine, and something I shall one day explore. It is quite apparent that the film has lived its world.
        So, Ishqiya is about two conmen Babban (Mr. Warsi) and Khalujaan (Mr. Shah), who get conned. Consider it all like a little con-game, where the con isn’t what you think it should be, and the stakes are way higher than what you think they are. The two guys are on the run for some sort of amount stolen, and on their way across the Nepal border they seek shelter at a woman’s residence, Krishna (Ms. Balan) by name. In the film’s opening act, where Krishna and her ganglord-politician husband Varma, involved in a sweet and warm romance, but still we sense a tension between them. A tension more from the husband’s perspective. A tension that conveys that all is not transparent between them two. And then, the house explodes. We learn later the husband was killed. The cause: gas cylinder, though the opening act clearly shows that the cylinder was empty.
        And here I invoke once again that most profound of all tenets of filmmaking – A good film is not about what it’s about but how it’s about it. Thank you Mr. Ebert. Ishqiya, if we choose to see it that way, is a con-game in itself, on the two conmen within it, and in turn us. Babban and Khalujaan are made to believe they are the principal characters, that the movie is about them and the little games their hearts are playing. The two conmen practice their romance in the openness of the world, in tea stalls, in buses, on sea beaches. But we ignore how the film opens. The film, by following their perspective and using that to gauge the vague mysteries of Krishna, is cleverly pulling a con on us.
        And look at one of the ending scenes, which ought to have been the final moment, and which would have actually made the con complete if it chose to end it my way. The action is outside, and the two principal characters, the husband and the wife are once again cut off from it, lost in their own world, those two back to being the only variables of an equation. I am reminded of Bertolucci’s masterpiece Last Tango in Paris. The real love, the real sex, the real unison isn’t out there in those adulterous affairs, isn’t in those brothels but is between a husband and his wife, and for that matter a wife and her husband. Them two within the four walls, the only variables of an equation, and it is something deeply sacred that instantly trivializes the lovey-dovey escapades of the outside world. It trivializes and even indulges in borderline contempt of what we were thinking and suspecting. The film for the most part seems playful and jovial. That is because the supposed love-games, or the titular Ishqiya of the two conmen is just that. We, Babban and Khalujaan were suspecting the morality. The woman revealed something entirely different and didn’t even bother to spit on our faces. She is a woman of great pride, a woman of great self respect, a woman of great ego, and a woman who placed her love and her entire trust on a person. And that trust has been betrayed. Anyone other and the wife wouldn’t even have bothered. But here’s someone who she loves with her heart and soul. This was a matter that was between the husband and the wife, and the husband chose to trust the outside world and pull a con on her. You should imagine the enormity of the dent that has been made on her ego, and hence on her love. The two scenes are one of the most gloriously choreographed and set sequences. Confined and cut-off.
        The two conmen represent the world. When one of them two realize the incomprehensible depths of a husband-wife relationship, we echo it too. I sat with my better half, and her friend, and both of them were giggling for the entire run of the film. Until the final scene and the final revelation came upon. I was stunned too, so to speak. That revelation, that twist, is miles beyond darkness. It is a depth that people deep in love would understand, or sense. Not the college-boy-Twilight-RomeoandJuliet-esque romance, but the ones at the heart of such egoistical films as The Painted Veil and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. That ending completely shatters the idyllic tone, and reins in something that feels quite intense. A twist not just of plot, but a twist in tone. We three, I suspect did too, but we might be too simple-minded to completely understand, or for that matter acknowledge it.
        Yet, the film indulges in a blunder and spoils that scene by involving the outer-world. There are explosions and bombs and gunfire and all the necessary ingredients to spoil the entire scene irreparably. How I wish Ishqiya ended there and then, and if needed an obligatory frame where the two conmen and the world with them stands amazed at the emotion that caused the second blast. That would’ve needed courage, and it would be too much to condemn the film on that respect, considering the box-office response that would be affected by such an ending. I wonder unconvinced, and I suspect my version of Ishqiya would have played out brilliantly, and I stand here open for arguments.
        Oh, one last thing. It is better we stop all this blah about Indian-Tarantino and stuff. In this game of showing off our cinematic knowledge (where we hail Mr. Guy Ritchie in the same breath as Mr. Tarantino, which is itself a reflection of a serious lack of understanding) we’re spoiling it for the coming generation. Those poor chaps deserve more than false knowledge and empty scholarly activity. One of the great crimes of cinema study is to draw off and point empty cinematic references, which enriches nobody. A referential study is to greatly undermine the power of the image. Mentioning it is fine, but to make that your sole point is a bit of empty cinematic masturbation. And even if you are caught masturbating, mention something truly worth the effort. Not just names like Tarantino, Rodriguez and Guy Ritchie.
        And yes, Ishqiya might be a great film, but I wonder how much of it is dependent on the con, i.e. the twist. A major part of its audience manipulation lies in its clever usage of perspectives, careful handing out of information and then pulling the rug. Now that we already know, would Ishqiya still hold that same strength? I do not know. I do not even know if that is a parameter to hold to judge the film since it is clearly intended as a mystery and a suspense thriller. And it is structured as quite a brilliant one, with clever clues placed everywhere. We never guess why the old woman seeks a matchbox, and we never wonder why there are so many gas cylinders, but we do sense that the gas cylinders need to add upto something. Ishqiya is a masterful thriller. And stunned I was. And I know that being stunned is the intended reaction. If you were, consider the film worked brilliantly.


The Lone Wanderer said...

This is one of the best reviews I have ever read. Hats off to you mate for analyzing the film so brilliantly. I got a feeling that the film will end with the second explosion but i didn't. I personally didn't feel convinced with the motivation behind Vidya's characters schemes. But your review has got me thinking.

Just Another Film Buff said...


You made my day. For the whole day yesterday, I've been thinking about the odd choices of the film. I read all those professional reviews and none of them seemed to actually get to the point. Yours is an extremely insightful review, as usual. No doubt about that. Your support has confirmed many of my suspicions. I guess all my senses were shut when watching and writing about the film. I can't believe I FORGOT a couple of important scenes.

I thought of putting up a post script, but I'll have to put up a separate post. I think we have an achievement here.

Thanks and Cheers!

Amar said...

I think last scene is quite important to understand the significance of Mushtaq in the story. I don't think removing any part from the climax would improve the ending. Minor violence was necessary for the safe escape of Krishna; and what better way was there than to place both of our main characters in it to understand mutual tones out of it?

man in the iron mask said...

The significance of Mushtaq? Please elaborate Amar. I feel there’s something in that character, and his wife, you know, and how she tames him. It is because of her he always remains a good-ish character, and doesn’t venture out into villainy. So, I don’t know, and I would really want to know what you perceive to be the significance of Mushtaq.

Now, as for the escape of Krishna. I wonder, was escape was what the character sought? The closest I think any literary/cinematic work gets to this narrative arc here is Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and the adaptation. The male there was betrayed, and his ego was hurt, and he took his wife and himself into the land of cholera with the intention of murder and suicide. I believe the love here is so deep a simple revenge and escape is not the intention at all. Krishna has something way deeper in her heart. Her wounds are way more tragic. She loves something with everything she can muster and it betrays her. I don’t know, but it is a fascinating state of mind. Strangely Dil Se comes to me mind.

man in the iron mask said...

Thanks Srikanth. I think I need a separate post too. I think as a reviewer I owe something to the film. The best way to criticize it is to make a film, and since I don’t have the necessary logistics, I intend to the next best thing. Write a screenplay, or something, and describe how the ending ought to have been. And I am really thinking, I really am. The exposition should be really something. Or should it be not? I am clueless and wondering. You see, now that the film has made you and me scratch our heads so bad, for so long, and made our imaginations run in all directions, I think it has done a lot of stuff right. But that film in my head, you know, is crying desperately to be epic. It needs an iconic image. That is it. You know, like the iconic exposition from Once Upon a time in the West, with the brother standing on top of the brother. An image, and that should do it, I guess. No need of Nandu explaining it to us.

Amar said...

I think that Mushtaq acts as an intermediate which lets us understand two central characters in the movie i.e. Babban and Khalujaan. He is a story-teller of this movie. A fabricator. A narrator. Mushtaq always comes on the screen when everything seems settled for them. I consider these interventions as a way to peel these characters off. We get to know more about these characters only due to Mushtaq's interference. Mushtaq was never there to kill Babban and Khalujaan. He is more interested in playing with them; rather than putting them to death. I think he finds these two characters so amusing and interesting that he always likes to observe their dashed lives from a distance and take a secret pleasure from it. Mushtaq's conversation with his wife in the last scene clarifies this I suppose.

Sorry for my presumably laughable projections here Satish. But, I like to defer about Krishna's "deep love" you mentioned earlier. I might sound a bit orthodox here, but can Krishna's relationship with Babban and Khalujaan justify her eagerness to confront her betrayer husband? While as a matter of fact, she had persuaded them to kidnap Mr Kakkar by gunpoint; and not by any seduction technique.

man in the iron mask said...

Your perspective is most interesting. You equate Mushtaq to the director and I sort of like that. It is nice clever funny game the film must be playing. Oh dear, it is very nice. You know, these two characters, or these three? Babban, Khaalujaan and Mushtaq could form a trio as they walk into OTHER STORIES, and folks can make a sequel out of it. Am I going too way ahead of me? Never mind.

Coming back. Why does Krishna have that relationship with Babban and Khalujaan? Didn’t she control them both? They were both emotionally manipulated to be pawns in her game. Babban needed sex. And she gave him that. Look what a docile cow he was the enxt day, doing all this actions to the T. Look at Khaalujaan. Didn’t he too? Sex is her weapon man, it is her gun.
Imagine the gravity of the pride of this woman. She decides to have sex with a trivial nobody. What could be inside of her?

Mishra said...

Hi Naidu,

Nice review.

by any chance this character mushtaq and the conversations with his wife reminds you of Hertz (PAUL GIAMATTI) in Shoot ’em Up

Gaurav Parab said...

whatever you do Satish, don't see Rann.

It is the worst thing on film since RGV's last film.

Rajesh said...

Excellent Review man. You nailed it. I remember sitting in the theatre watching Krishna and Varma getting together in the house finally and I thought nows the time for the explosion. It would have been perfect a end.

By the way, I have read peoples comment here, on PFC regarding the movie and an interesting thing I saw was how almost everyone has a different view of the characters. Thats one of the good characteristics of a movie - it invokes reaction from the people, it makes them think.

Jahanpanah said...

The movie is set in UP and not in Bihar.

Abinav Kumar said...

In the climax, where did the Police go?

man in the iron mask said...

The police? They were hanging their heads in disappointment at the silly explosions, I guess. Those poor guys were having such a good time at the station, and the film needlessly woke them up.

Anonymous said...

whoever wrote this review is a schizophrenic requiring early treatment...