Early on in Dedh Ishqiya, there's a face-off between Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah), and the villainous Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz) and his henchmen. It's dark and desolate where they are. Babban and Khalujan are outnumbered, they've been beaten up and Babban is on his knees, but they've got pistols that are trained upon Jaan Mohammad.
When it becomes clear that no one's lowering their weapons, Babban cheerfully observes they can keep this up all night. Cut to the next morning: everyone's precisely as they were in the earlier scene, only now they're yawning. The face-off has lasted all night, literally. At this critical moment, a chittering noise reaches the men's ears and they turn towards the source. A school's morning assembly begins and the children start singing a song that has rich resonance for the men who have been pointing guns at each other all night — "Hum ko mann ki shakti dena."
This is the kind of mischief and humour that sparkles throughout Abhishek Chaubey's Dedh Ishqiya. Set in a decadent and picturesque North Indian heartland that's filled with loveable criminals, this film has everything you could ask for in exchange of the price of a movie ticket. There are love triangles, a bromance, a delicious villain, multiple twists, car chases and, of course, lots of humour. And there's Madhuri Dixit-Nene, looking luminous. She's still capable of keeping an audience glued to their seats when the credits start rolling, all because she's dancing on screen.
Shah and Warsi first played the roles of the two petty but charming con men, Khalujan and Babban, in Chaubey's debut film, Ishqiya. In this sequel, Vidya Balan's Krishna is history and the two men have new targets. Rather, Khalujan does. Khalujan has set his sights upon Begum Para (Dixit-Nene), the gorgeous widow of a nawab. Begum Para has announced her intention to remarry, but according to her deceased husband's directives, she is to marry the man who can win a shayri contest.
It's a swayamvara with a difference and Khalujan shows up as a contender, pretending to be the mysterious but poetic nawab Iftikhar (if you can it say the name in breathy seductive tones the way Dixit Nene does, give yourself a cupcake).
Thanks to Dr Bashir Badr, whose poetry has been used in Dedh Ishqiya, Khalujan has the verses to win the contest, but he also has some serious competition in the form of Raaz's Jaan Mohammed. Jaan Mohammed is a local politician who is smitten by the Begum and ready to do whatever it takes to claim her as his own, including kidnapping a poet and killing Khalujan and Babban. Fluttering through this central plot are a prized necklace that is worth a fortune, a plot to abduct the Begum, the sly stratagems of Begum's companion Munniya (Huma Qureshi) and a shayar named Italvi (because he's from Italy. His mum and Sonia Gandhi went to school together).
It doesn't matter if you sniff out the twists in advance or aren't particularly keen on the Urdu poetry that glints like the perfectly-cut gems in the aforementioned necklace. Dedh Ishqiya is an absolute delight because all its parts fit beautifully. The cinematography, sets and costumes are exquisite. The editing is sharp. Most importantly Darab Farooqui's story is plotted wonderfully by Vishal Bharadwaj and Chaubey's screenplay. Bharadwaj has also written the dialogues and they're stylish, witty and a wonderful change from the awkward khichdi of Hindi and English that we usually hear in Bollywood films. Of course, it helps to have actors like Raaz and Shah delivering Bharadwaj's lines.
It's obvious how both these brilliant actors delight in the dialogues and roles they've been given, but they're not the only acting stars in Dedh Ishqiya. Warsi delivers a crackling performance as Babban, infusing great energy and effervescence into the film with his role. Qureshi and Dixit-Nene don't let the men steal the show. In terms of acting, chemistry and plot, the women are often the scene stealers.
The greatest praise, however, must be reserved for the director. Chaubey is two films old and compared to Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya is far more elaborate, complicated and ambitious. Like a skipping stone, the film touches upon a variety of genres — action, comedy, romance, social critique — and Chaubey handles them deftly.
He uses his actors expertly and gives even minor characters the kind of arc that is usually reserved for heroes. Compared to the half-baked stories that Bollywood subjects audiences to, Chaubey's film is nouvelle cuisine that uses its ingredients with sophistication and inventive flair. There's an insightful look at feudalism, both in terms of its old-world charm as well as its potential for brutality, in Dedh Ishqiya. The film contains an ode to the lyricism of classic Urdu poetry, mobsters as well as the familiar two-against-the-world formula that has powered so many legendary films. Chaubey weaves all of this together to create a fictional India in which you'll love losing yourself. And when Dedh Ishqiya ends, all you can say is irshaad.