Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Huma Qureshi, Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Vijay Raaz, Manoj Pahwa, Salman Shahid
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Rating: Three and a half stars
Khawatinon hazrat, tashrif rakhiye, ek Banarsi paan nosh farmaiye. Aur phir, itminan se, hum aagaaz karenge is dilkash kisse ka — Dedh Ishqiya.
I’m in the zone, man, in the atmospheric world lovingly created by Messrs Vishal Bhadwaj and Abhishek Chaubey. This is a world of ada and tehzeeb and Urdu shayari called Mahbubabad — a dusty, forgotten outhouse of Lucknow somewhere in Uttar Pradesh — where Ismat Chughtai’s “obscene” short story Lihaaf, about Begum Jaan and Rabbu, gets aired and twisted elegantly, at a time not very different from when Chughtai was summoned to Lahore high court, circa 1944.
'Dedh Ishqiya' is a libidinous sociological caper where the crime isn’t as cocky or compelling as the criminals. Charming people all, their plans curdle in the end... ironically, beautifully. And yet we’d like them to return to the big screen soon, for another mushaira, another thumri, another kathak performance choreographed by Pt. Birju Maharaj.
'Dedh Ishqiya' opens and closes with the great Pakistani actor Salman Shahid threatening the heads or, well, gilli, of the truant men who purportedly work for him. He is Mushtaq bhai, the Bhopal man for whom Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Iftekhar Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) work, as they did in Ishqiya (2010). This time round they have to steal a necklace worth Rs. 50 lakh from a jewellery shop. They pull off the chori, with humorous posturing and spunk, but then Khalu goes missing, as does the necklace.
Khalu has taken his tashreef ka tokra to Mahbubabad, where an elaborate jashn and muqabla has been organised because Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) must honour her promise to her marhoom shauhar, the Nawab of Mahbubabad, and find the estate a new nawab. Prospective grooms congregate to impress Begum Para with their shayari and nishane-baazi.
The local MLA, Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), is very keen on Begum Para and the estate. But he doesn’t have a nawabi bone in his body. So he kidnaps Noor Mohammad Italvi (Manoj Pahwa), a known shayar, and forces him to write sher for him.
Iftekhar Khalu, now Nawab of Chandpur in crisp sherwanis, is also in the running. He came here after a visit to a hakim who told him that the only cure for his trembling hands is a full, seven-course mohabbat. He must go through all its stages: hub (attraction), uns (infatuation), ishq (love), aqeedat (reverence), ibaadat (worship), junoon (obsession) and maut (death). There’s another stage, between six and seven — it's stage six-and-a-half that gave the film UA certification and its plot bite.
Keeping Begum Para at a safe distance from her lascivious suitors is Munniya (Huma Qureshi), Begum’s humnafas, humnawa.
Begum Para's dimly-lit world of old nawabi shaan is both grand and squalid. There’s musty tehzeeb and empty coffers, heady language and moth-balled etiquettes, Belgian glasses and fraying pashminas. These seductive aesthetics create the right setting for Begum Para, who is like a piece of heirloom jewellery. In the right light, she glistens. Else she’s a fading antique.
Into this world, running from Mushtaq bhai and chasing his Khalu, lands Babban. He finds a plan and an accomplice. But the louts with their loins and hearts ablaze are no match for their quick-thinking, sultry adversaries. After interval the story gallops, and by the time we realise what has happened, Chaubey & Bhardwaj have gone political on us, making their point so gracefully and tactfully that all I could say was, “Janab, irshaad”.
Director Abhishek Chaubey and his mentor Vishal Bhadwaj’s 'Dedh Ishqiya' is better than their last outing together. The film has a strong plot that moves subtly, gently, like an accomplished Kathak performer dancing in a circle no bigger than the span of Begum Para’s Anarkali kurta. It made me think more of Tarantino’s 'Jackie Brown' than Ridley Scott’s 'Thelma & Louise'.
Yet the plot is not the film’s main strength. Its brilliance lies in the texture they bring to the screen — with dialogue that shine and delight, jagged characters, brilliant use of Akhtari Begum’s ghazals and thumris and an eye and affinity for the absurd. The film has several hysterical scenes, and all play out like a teasing blank verse.
The film’s dialogue are smart, quick and full of flavour. They pack in a romance with a bygone era, a time that knew that a sher had two misras, and a ghazal began with a matla. All the film’s dialogue are delivered with the right tilt of the head and temper by the film’s cast.
The film’s characters, who share crackling chemistry, are like setpieces. Each one has been created with care and are equally dear to the film’s writer and director. Each one is nicely contorted — flawed, a bit unhinged, and yet endearing.
Huma Qureshi as the keeper of all secrets is fabulous. Naseeruddin Shah, after several mediocre films, seems to have got back his mojo for this assignment. His dialogue delivery is lovely and he exudes both old-world charm and desperation. Arshad Warsi is suitably crass and his comic timing is perfect.
Vijay Raaz is a very fine actor who has, unfortunately, reduced himself to a type. Though he does his deadpan goonda act with perfection, there’s now a certain predictability to the persona and his reactions. He’s honed this one character into a caricature and robbed it of its soul.
The film’s delight and emotional anchor is Madhuri Dixit. She begins by taking decent, little nibbles, and then slowly, decisively digs her teeth into her character. Madhuri is at her best now. She’s like mulled wine — spicy, a bit acidic but also deliciously warm and intoxicating. She’s never had such a strong, throbbing interior. Her eyes and lips let us in on very little. We get just a glimpse of who Begum Para is, the rest, the thoughts that dwell inside, remain intriguing elusive....