Rarely are grace and profanity cited in the same breath. Debutant filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya, however, is a privileged exception.
Regardless of its colourful language, simmering sexuality, ribald humour and unabashed reverence for the offensive, the drama has enough lyricism, layers and eccentricity to stereotype it as grim or gawky.
Produced, co-written (along with Chaubey and Sabrina Dhawan) and composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, Ishqiya bears his stamp of brains, brilliance and blasphemy but leaves enough space for Chaubey to establish his credibility. And that's not an easy task when your film is set in the same milieu and texture as Bhardwaj's Omkara. But like Chaubey mentions in an interview, the similarities are mostly 'cosmetic.' He's quite right too.
Barring the fact that both films are set in Eastern Uttar Pradesh belt, which obviously reflects in the conversations, mannerisms and clothing, there's no further resemblance. Interestingly, Chaubey's UP is not just a contrived hamlet featuring mooing cows and stray dogs but a self-sufficient town with malls, restaurants and beauty parlours.
Comfortable in its capricious skin, Ishqiya -- a tricky and moody tale of a whimsical trio caught in twisted circumstances -- gets even more complicated owing to the impulsiveness of heart.
The fickle tone is set in the opening sequence itself wherein a couple shares intimate moments of domesticity when their bliss is shattered after a gas cylinder blows off. This then immediately follows with some wonderful on-the-road bonhomie between Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, courtesy the supremely infectious Ibn-e-batuta. The drastic change of tracks is conducted with such crispness and panache; it's quite impressive, really.
The afore-mentioned actors play Khalujaan and Babban, small-time crooks on the run after stealing from their gun-toting boss, Mushtaq (Salman Shahid). Things don't work out as planned and they are forced to take refuge at a deceased friend's dilapidated abode in Gorakhpur (striking props and production design by Nitin Chandrakant Desai) run single-handedly by his melancholic widow, Krishna (Vidya Balan).
While Khalujaan is clearly the experienced yet emotional of the lot, Babban, underneath the cocky surface is disarmingly boyish and sensitive. As for Krishna, she's exactly like the tone of this movie -- unpredictable.
Her melodious charms instantly find an aficionado in Khalujaan who reveals his antecedent belonged to the 'Great Gharana of Indore' for his tabla-playing skills whereas the perennially aroused Babban befriends a 'Bees-kam-paanch' adolescent lad (Aalok Kumar) to track down the nearest brothel in town. Eventually, he too starts competing with Khalu for Krishna's hard-to-tell affections.
Just as we get comfortable with the romance, Chaubey throws a new twist our way. Certain developments in the script implore them to kidnap a specific Mr Kakkad as the only resort to wiggle out of the ensuing dilemma. What follows is a wild ride of set-ups, heartbreaks, revelations and a high-five worthy awesome climax.
While Ishqiya is a terrific first-time effort from Chaubey, there were a couple of things that strike a jarring note. Firstly, the pace could have been tauter and done away with all the excessive ambiguity surrounding characters, sub-plots and their objectives. If the idea is to keep them enigmatic, it is tediously conveyed.
As much as one appreciates Mohana Krishna's fluid camerawork, which captures both the day scenes of dingy countryside lanes as well as the shady night-themed drama of red-light areas with precision and play, the editing by Namrata Rao is mostly sloppy.
Ishqiya's individuality lies in the fact that it's stylish, very stylish, mind you, only not in the sense we are conditioned to acknowledge. There's none of the cowboy swagger nor is the blasphemy or sexuality, read a long lip lock between Arshad and Vidya, induced with the intent to jolt or titillate.
Like Popeye's simplistic philosophy, 'I yam what I yam,' Ishqiya tells it like it is, no judging, in the face of most bizarre circumstances. Therein lies the charm and triumph of Chaubey's fondly titled caper which bears the rustic imagery of Shyam Benegal's vision and the aggression of a Vishal Bhardwaj film.
Though set against a rural backdrop, Ishqiya has a very urban mind and approach, which is evident in its narrative if not lingo. Chaubey, like Bhardwaj in Kaminey, handpicks classic melodies of Rahul Dev Burman and Hemant Kumar to lend dual perspective to a scene, which is both effective and cool.
Considering Bhardwaj's contribution to this film, his mention is mandatory. As expected, he brings his ardour and understanding of the art with some forceful and quotable word play: 'Humne galti karne mein thodi jaldi kardi aur aapne maafi maangne mein thodi der.' Or communicate just a hint of ethnic differences with 'Khalujaan, yeh jagah bahut danger hain. Apne yahan toh sirf Shia-Sunni hote hain. Yahan toh Pandey, Yadav, Jat sabne apni fauj bana rakhi hai.'
He influences Chaubey in the most constructive way possible instilling the importance of a solid, even if virtually unknown, supporting cast. And so you'll come across some incredible pieces of acting from actors -- spanning all age groups, besides the main three.
And what a threesome! Even as Naseer keeps it understated letting his keen presence, droopy eyes and shy smile express his besotted state, Arshad Warsi demonstrates his un-Circuit self in a role that demands sly sensuality and locker-room humour.
The lady, however, steals the show. Vidya Balan seems to be on a roll. After Paa, she once again rises to the occasion to reaffirm her credentials as a powerhouse performer. Along the lines of Hema Malini, Vidya is a rare combination of grit and grace even when swearing in the strongest possible language draped in dowdy, fluorescent yellows and reds. If this is not remarkable, what is?
Although one of the best moments of Ishqiya comes during the climax as three maverick Ishqians walk away from a scene of destruction to Bharadwaj's escalating score, an unmistakable ode to the genius of Ennio Morricone.
If VB is the equivalent of Quentin Tarantino in Hindi cinema, safe to say with Chaubey, we have a Robert Rodriguez in the making.