Cast: Madhuri Dixit Nene, Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Huma Qureshi, Vijay Raaz
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: An intelligent film with an incredibly humane plea.
Let us start with something that sounds like good old-fashioned hyperbole – it astonishes that Mr. Chaubey has only ever made two film, including this one here, especially after one were to parse the images he puts on screen – and then proceed to try and argue that the way it sounds isn’t remotely the way it is. As in, Mr. Chaubey might not be the best filmmaker we have, although he could be there very soon, he sure could be, through their density, up there with our best image-makers. Consider a moment at the very end of his debut film Ishqiya which I discuss here (and I was only disappointed by his choice because it end up as the film I wanted it to be), and its strict cutting out of the external world through stonewalls and a dimly lit room from what is the true essence of that picture – a husband and a wife and the dynamic of their relationship that surrounds them symbolized via the gas cylinders. Unlike his mentor (?) Mr. Vishal Bharadwaj’s recent offerings. Mr. Chaubey’s images sure feel organic to the story but are to be read as much as they are to be felt.
Consider one here, towards the end, where Khalu (Mr. Shah) and Babban (Mr. Warsi) are bound in something of a warehouse, and they both (not us) see Begum Para (Ms. Dixit Nene) and Muniya (Ms. Qureshi) indulge themselves in bonding and playfulness that is, let’s just say, seems to cross the boundaries of mere friendship. Now, here’s where watching the film as late as I did with complete knowledge of the supposed relationship between the two women – apparently they’re lesbians – really helped, for as with most narrative twists, I was looking for evidence and I could find none. I was confused, until this shot came along, and in hindsight I consider myself so fortunate to have watched the film the way I did, for often I’m slow and I fear I might have completely missed the point.
But let us come back to that shot, and parse that wonderful wonderful image. Khalu is hand-tied, and so is Babban off-screen, and to the left we see the shadows of Begum Para and Muniya together in a heap. As in, no daylight between them. Moments earlier both the males look with their brows raised as Begum and Muniya play together, leading Khalu to comment – Thand lag rahi hai, lihaaf maang le (It’s pretty chilly, should we ask for a quilt) – leading Babban to laugh. Over and above being a nod to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (more of which could be learnt here), and something that smacks of homophobia, what it also reveals is our need to classify things into brackets so that we can understand them. A green apple is an apple, and a red apple is an apple. It makes us less anxious, making the unknown familiar. Mr. Chaubey’s orchestration of the image and all its variables (and what they represent) is quite genius in the way he doesn’t show us the action, but turns the view on itself. The shadows aren’t Begum and Muniya, as much as they are our viewpoint of them, and Mr. Chaubey smartly and dare I say damningly turns that on us. As in Ishqiya, Khalu and Babban seem to represent something close to idiots, i.e. us viewers, who scarcely understand the world and its various dynamics. They’re journeymen, or like one of them travel-channel anchors, trying to discover (and in the process sell) the world for us, and as much as Krishna (Ms. Balan in Ishqiya) turned their (and our) perspective of her upside down, the shadowplay is desperately interpreted as foreplay by that comment from Khalu.
And in this image from Mr. Chaubey, those shadows being viewpoints is not merely an interpretation. That is, it is not the prerogative of the viewer, but that these shadows are a part of a performance. It might be worthwhile here to mention that if not anything else, Dedh Ishqiya is all about performativity, especially of the gender kind, and all of its characters are caught in moments where they are exhibiting themselves to an audience, and thus conducting themselves accordingly. Allow me to share a few of these –
Here’s Begum Para being a dancer, and Khalu with all the chauvinistic entitlement one can attribute to such a moment, peeking through the door and appreciating the “feminine grace”. Also, that the performer is Ms. Dixit (whose identity/classification can be done on two counts – (a) dancing queen (b) million dollar smile – and I suppose I don’t have to tell you it is as much an appreciation of her talents as much as it is a straight-jacketing of her identity).
Here, moments later, Begum and Muniya perform together, and Khalu and Babban peek together. Performance being watched by, well, a performance.
Crudely speaking, boys and their toys. Crucial here, Mr. Chaubey’s composition.
Men standoff in a circle, while women gather in a circle. In the night.
Men, aside from peeking through dusty windows, also wax poetry, for it is their prerogative to appreciate.
Now, I do hope that these moments have provided some kind of context as to what that film is all about – we are all performers, performing to the idea of an identity created by society culture and history. Mr. Chaubey’s great move, both via the script and via his staging, is to classify sex as an act, as a performance. In that way, the irony within the scene is not slight as most of the irony in movies is these days, but heavy and bordering on tragic. On the face of it, Khalu and Babban are tied, but by turning it into a flat image by superimposing the performance on the viewer, Mr. Chaubey’s makes the performers prisoners of their identities.
Does this fly in the face of Freud’s pleasure principle? Rather, I would say, it argues for it, for sex is a desire, but a performance is an act that communicates with the ego. Leonard Shelby was indulging in a broad performance of an avenging husband for he wanted to satiate his ego, i.e. his identity of himself. Thus performance is ripe enough to use as a manipulating device, and our culture does make sure that our desires are strongly dictated by our identities, which in turn are shaped and classified by that culture. Muniya makes sure to manipulate Babban, for his identity (alpha male) is intermingled with his desires (heterosexual male) so much so that there’s significant confusion over there. Mr. Chaubey implicates Babban too, when he kinda cuts the sex from the frame, and instead zeroes in on him early in the film.
So yeah, what he intends to say is to want the id and the pleasure seeking impulses not to be hijacked by the pressures of identity. Begum Para and Muniya are thirsty, and when the two are running away, hand-in-hand, towards freedom, all they seek is to quench their thirst. That they drink straight from the bottle sticking it into their mouths, or pour it into a glass and sip it is their prerogative. In fact, even they are thirsty might just be our assumption. Dedh Ishqiya sure has a twist in its narrative, but the twist isn’t that Begum Para is not an aristocratic woman, or that she and Muniya are lesbian lovers. The twist is that their identities and desires and pleasures are far different from what their society attributes them with, or even forces onto them. Mr. Chaubey never concedes, and in his determination to not include anything gratuitous or indicative, all he wants to say is that two people can mean the world to each other without us wanting to throw in desires and sex into the mix. Here’s a thoughtful filmmaker for you, and I tell you, they come so rare.