Review: Dedh Ishqiya

Deepa Deosthalee

In Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett plays a down-and-out former heiress surviving on a staple diet of vodka, Xanax, rage and self-pity. She talks to herself and is rude to everyone in sight. But the character's vulnerability cuts deep and as you loathe her selfishness you also feel terribly sorry for her. 

Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Naseeruddin Shah from a still in Dedh Ishqiya
Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Naseeruddin Shah from a still in Dedh Ishqiya

In Abhishek Chaubey's Dedh Ishqiya, Madhuri Dixit-Nene is Begum Para (the name has such a delicious old-world ring!) the widowed queen of Mehmudabad (somewhere in UP) presiding over a decrepit haveli, whom we see in a private moment of revulsion as she consumes a sedative to calm her nerves and furiously scratches herself out of a photo album. I was waiting for the actress to draw me into the character's pain with the same fragility that Blanchett does.

Sadly, it wasn't to be.

Dixit-Nene's inconsistent performance—more focused on looking young and pretty so that even though she’s supposedly chewing paan throughout, her teeth are always Colgate white—is one of two factors that prevent Dedh Ishqiya from achieving its full potential as a comic-thriller. The other is its pacing, hampered by needless pauses between dialogues, as if the filmmaker was waiting for the audience to applaud before he moved on.

Also, while we accept that where there’s Madhuri there must be an elaborate dance performance, it happens right in the middle of the film when one would have so liked the plot to get a move-on instead of sitting back to appreciate her Kathak moves. Because the actress fails to nudge us into empathising with the Begum’s sorry life her self-expression through dance is rendered largely ineffectual.

Heroines rarely get to be plot drivers in a Hindi film. When they do, it's imperative they make it count. With the Ishqiya template we already know that bumbling crooks Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are going to be made fools of by the women they predictably fall for. “Iss baar ishq sachcha hai,”Khalu insists and even gets Babban to address him as Ifteqaar with the same seductive lilt as Begum does.

Meanwhile Babban woos her companion Muniya (Huma Qureshi) over the newest iphone version and some dirty talk. Vijay Raaz as Jaan Mohammad, a local politician, too throws down the gauntlet in the unusual race for the Begum’s heart through a Mushaira and shooting competition for which several suitors have turned up from all over. Apparently it was her ‘marhoom’ husband’s last wish that she remarry after him.

Jaan is desperate enough to kidnap a poet (with an Italian connection, no less) while Khalu, who’s on the run after another botched-up heist, dons the disguise of a ‘nawab’ from Chandpur. The game of one-upmanship between Khalu and Jaan as they spar on the podium with words and on the field with guns is hilarious, not the least because the two actors themselves are locked in a subtle duel for our affections.

Frankly, it’s difficult to choose a winner. Shah’s love struck Urdu inflections are a rare pleasure and Raaz’s willingness to be ragged even as he takes himself so seriously reminds you of that magnificent performance in Monsoon Wedding whose potential he never lived up to in the intervening decade, mostly on account of bad roles.

Chaubey and Vishal Bharadwaj have penned a racy script sprinkled with genuine humour. They should have trusted the writing and not gone for stylish indulgences. The Tarantinoesque climax is so futile! As if a film involving goons in UP can’t end without at least one long senseless shootout.

Especially when we’ve had so much fun with the sudden plot twist three-quarters of the way, which makes you want to sit up and applaud heartily. Despite these reservations though Dedh Ishqiya is an intelligent film and better than anything Bharadwaj has directed in recent years. And except for the music, may even be one-up on the original. 

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