Manish Tiwary's Issaq attempts a giant leap from Verona to Varanasi and falls with a thud between two completely mismatched stools.
The tools at the director’s disposal and the narrative material that he opts for are separated by both geography and sensibility. Either way, the gap is too wide for Tiwary to bridge. The result is a big yawn of a film.
The director gives new skeins to William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and transports the duo to the holy town on the banks of the Ganges, where an unholy war is raging between two bloodthirsty clans.
The Montagues become the Mishras and the Capulets mutate into the Kashyaps in this tangled tragedy that never manages to find its bearings.
Set in the back lanes, mansions and ghats of Benaras, the film focusses on a clash between pure love and the lust for power. The result is disastrous – as much for the two families involved in the fictional fracas as for the film that seeks to re-imagine the Bard’s classic scenario in a contemporary desi context.
As the two warring clans battle for lucrative sand-mining contracts, Rahul Mishra (Prateik Babbar) and Bachchi Kashyap (Amyra Dastur) do the unthinkable in the fond hope of mending fences.
Matters take a turn for the worse when a band of Naxalites, led by a Malayalam-speaking rebel (Prashant Narayanan), infiltrates the area and snipes for control of the sand pits monopolised by the Mishras and the Kashyaps.
Issaq parlays the powerful dramatic directness of 'Romeo and Juliet' into a more twisted rendition of human frailties as they play out in the complex socio-political cauldron of Benaras.
Quite apart from not being able to get a firm handle on the serious issues that are at stake in this narrative, Issaq falls well short of capturing the sizzling passion that lay at the heart of the Romeo and Juliet love story.
The fact that the lead pair of Prateik Babbar and debutante Amyra Dastur does not seem to share any palpable on-screen chemistry does not help the film’s cause.
Tiwary and his co-writers Pawan Sony and Padmaja Thakore-Tiwary bite off more than they can chew and cram the canvas with details that only serve to divert attention away from the film’s focal point – the love story.
Issaq, which runs for nearly two and a half hours, suffers from an overload of plots and sub-plots that are peopled with sketchily fleshed out characters that walk into the frame abruptly and vanish just as hastily.
As a result, the film feels more like a vengeance saga than the emotionally charged tragedy that it is supposed to be.
Most of the characters are mere caricatures and do not, therefore, come across as believable small-town figures.
The worst of the lot are the Maoist leader, a ganja-smoking godman (Makarand Deshpande) who pontificates meaninglessly about love and life, and a firangi girl (Evelyn Sharma) that our lovelorn Romeo pursues until he finds his Juliet.
The armed rebels float around more like a bunch of tripped-out day-trippers out to have some fun than a band of brigands fighting a life-and-death battle against their feudal exploiters.
The young lovers, on their part, look like a pair that has been airdropped here from south Mumbai – at least their diction suggests as much. Bachchi pronounces special as ‘suppecial’ on more than one occasion, but she is perfectly capable of intoning "Main virgin hoon" with absolute clarity of diction.
What Issaq projects is a completely Bollywoodized view of Benaras. Nothing in this portrait rings true, not even the rebellious spirit of the Mishra patriarch’s second wife (Rajeshwari Sachdev), who thinks nothing of lusting for the brother of her husband’s first wife (Ravi Kishen).
As a result of the sluggish pace of the narrative and the poorly etched characters, Issaq never achieves the intensity of a Shakespearean adaptation.
Actors like Amit Sial and Vineet Kumar Singh play supporting parts but manage to make an impression whenever they are on the screen. Rajeshwari Sachdev, too, strikes a chord with her portrayal of a married seductress who evolves into a fiery revenge-seeker.
All that Issaq manages to be, despite all the sparkling compositions that the cinematographer strings together, is an unconvincing story of ill-fated love. It is not at all easy to sit through.
By then it's too late.