I know its only January but I think its safe to say that Ishqiya is the most crackling film you’ll see this year. It’s feisty and sly and very, very sexy.
Which is astounding considering that it is set in Gorakhpur. But in the hands of debutant director Abhishek Chaubey, the badlands of Eastern UP are simmering with dirty deeds and dark desires. This desi noir is so feverish, it makes everything else look anemic in comparison.
Written by Vishal Bharadwaj, Chaubey and Sabrina Dhawan, Ishqiya gives us a love triangle unlike any we’ve seen before.
Two petty thieves, uncle Khalujan, played by Naseeruddin Shan and his nephew Babban, played by Arshad Warsi, are on the run after double-crossing their boss. When all other avenues for shelter dry up, they land up at the house of a friend only to be told that he is dead. His widow Krishna, played by Vidya Balan, takes them in. What follows is an incredibly tangled tale of love and longing, guns and deceit.
You know you are in for a roller coaster ride the minute the film starts. The standard disclaimer that the film and its characters are fictional informs us that characters kafi hadh tak imaginary hain.
It will take you several minutes to adjust to the terrain and the language but Ishqiya seeps in like slow intoxication.
Chaubey keeps the pacing brisk and the humor, crisp. He skillfully shifts notes going from suspense to laughter in a blink. And the dialogue, by Vishal, is pitch perfect.
Krishna, who is described as a desi tamancha and a sutli bomb, plays the men like an organ.
Both uncle and nephew fall inexorably in love with her. Khalujan conducts an old-world romance, listening to her sing and in a lovely scene, even peeling garlic in her kitchen. Babban is aggressively sexual but the poetry of their love is underlined with danger. You are always aware that nothing is quite what it seems.
Ishqiya would have faltered if the performances had not matched the writing but all three leads are absolutely terrific.
Vidya Balan’s smoldering looks scorch the screen even as her eyes hint at tragedy. She proves that she is miles ahead of the cookie cutter Barbie dolls that clutter Bollywood and that sensuality has very little to do with showing skin.
Arshad Warsi is feral as Babban and Naseeruddin Shah, heart-achingly vulnerable as an old man giddy with love. Watch his smiling eyes in Bharadwaj’s lilting composition Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji.
After hearing Krishna sing, Khalujan immediately starts to color his graying hair. Little touches like this stay with you even after the film is over.
Of course Ishqiya isn’t an entirely smooth ride.
In the second half, there are stretches in which the plot starts to blur and the end-twist is less than convincing. But if you have the patience and the willingness to savor an edgier, less populist popular Hindi cinema, you will be amply rewarded.
I strongly recommend that you see it. (NDTV)