For a Hindi movie critic subjected to cinematic trash week after week, the unenviable job is often an onerous chore.
Rare is a Bollywood release that one genuinely looks forward to. Dedh Ishqiya, for sure, is one such atypical film, and certainly not for its capricious title alone.
On account of several other worthy reasons, not the least of which is the presence in the cast of the still-incandescent Madhuri Dixit, it has got to be one of this year’s most anticipated releases. Dedh Ishqiya measures up on most counts.
Co-writer and director Abhishek Chaubey delivers a delightfully droll thriller set in an upcountry feudal milieu where adorable rogues and unfettered tricksters have a field day.
In fact,Dedh Ishqiya is in many respects appreciably more enthralling than Ishqiya.
Thematically, the follow-up casts its net far wider and comes up with striking insights into the flaws and foibles of people who haven’t lost their flair for the flashy despite their lives having hitting the skids.
The screenplay is laced with acidic wit, the comic touches are subtly sly, and the on-screen performances are marvellously modulated.
Dedh Ishqiya entertains, but does so in a manner that does not trifle with the intelligence of the audience.
In other words, here is an exceptional film that does not have to negotiate the kind of facile crowd-pleasing narrative formulations that most Bollywood flicks must necessarily wade through in order to get to the Rs 200-crore mark.
Dedh Ishqiya might not get there, but it is a triumph of measured craftsmanship and storytelling finesse.
Shored up by producer Vishal Bhardwaj’s razor-sharp dialogues and unusual musical score, Dedh Ishqiya looks, sounds and feels like nothing that the Mumbai movie industry has produced in a while.
It is more an Urdu film than a Hindi one, with a majority of the characters speaking lines in a language and with the kind of mellifluence that have gone out of Mumbai cinema.
Much of the credit for the look and texture of the film must obviously go to both cinematographer Setu and the production designer duo of Subrata Chakrabarty and Amit Ray.
Working primarily with natural sources of light, Setu composes some truly remarkable images whose glow lingers long after they have played themselves out.
The quality of the writing and the sharpness of the editing (A Sreekar Prasad), too, deserve an equally large measure of praise. Each neatly constructed sequence leads into the next flawlessly and without leaving any creases behind.
So, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Dedh Ishqiya does not ever appear to flag.
Small-time thieves Khalujaan Iftikhar Hussain (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) con a jewellery store owner and flee with an expensive necklace.
In flight, Khalu and Babban are separated. The latter ends up in a pit, with local strongman Mushtaq (Salman Shahid) and his men all but ready to bump him off.
But Babban talks his way out of trouble and goes in search of Khalujaan, who, the younger man has reason to believe, has pulled a fast one on him.
The latter, now in the guise of a poetry-spouting nawab, walks into the swayamvar of the widowed Begum Para, the ruler of Mahmudabad (Madhuri Dixit).
The lady has decided to remarry the best versifier in town and everyone is out to make an impression on her.
Even bigger trouble brews for Khalu and Babban as a smarmy politician, Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), throws his hat in the ring.
He goes to the extent of abducting a poet named Nur Mohammad Italvi (his nom de plume is derived from his Italian mom) so that he has a steady supply of lines to electrify the Begum with.
But in Mahmudabad, nothing is what it seems, and the Begum and her lady-in-waiting Munira (Huma Qureshi) have a few tricks up their pretty sleeves.
Dedh Ishqiya is filled with many delights: the repeated banter between Khalu and Babban, Khalu’s efforts to woo the Begum and bring her out of her self-imposed exile from dance, Babban’s typically brazen attempts to win Munira over, and of course the dangerous cat-and-mouse game that they all play with the unrelenting Jaan Mohammad.
All of this works wonderfully well because the acting is of a consistently high order. The two spirited women in this male-dominated landscape play second fiddle to none and get their own back with ease.
If it is difficult to take one’s eyes off the screen when Madhuri is on it, it is no less a joy to watch Huma Qureshi effortlessly matching strides with the veteran, move for move.
Naseeruddin Shah captures the essence of the worldly wise Khalujaan with the kind of acuity that only an actor of his proven calibre could have.
Arshad Warsi, as always, is a livewire who injects full-on fizz into the proceedings without breaking into a sweat.
The director also extracts outstanding performances from the supporting cast.
Vijay Raaz as the villain who is loath to take no for an answer, Manoj Pahwa as the poet in captivity who never tires of flaunting his Italian origins and Salman Shahid as the eccentric gang lord are first-rate.
Notwithstanding the title, there are no half measures in Dedh Ishqiya.
From dilkashi to junoon, the start and end point respectively of Khalujaan’s take on the seven stages of love, the film has them both and everything in between and beyond.
Dedh Ishqiya is a must watch.