Ishq movie review: 50% feminist and brilliantly observant, 50% sub-consciously misogynist and bizarre
If you are a young person just figuring out your views on rights issues, Ishq is a great case study of what we are likely to get when feminism is a fad or a superficial pursuit for a filmmaker.
castShane Nigam, Ann Sheetal, Shine Tom Chacko, Leona Lishoy, Jaffer Idukki
If you are a young person just figuring out your views on rights issues, Ishq is a great case study of what we are likely to get when feminism is a fad, a formula or a superficial pursuit for a filmmaker, not a sincere commitment and a deeply understood, carefully-thought-out ideological stance.
Director Anuraj Manohar’s debut feature begins with a knife-like indictment of what has come to be called “moral policing”. This part of the film is brilliant in its interpretation of the social dynamic that causes a woman to stay on in a dangerous, potentially fatal situation because the option – which would mean her family finding out that she was making out with her boyfriend in the backseat of a car in a darkened parking lot – is, to her mind, far worse.
Ishq stars Ann Sheetal as the woman in question, Vasudha. She is an MA student spending the day with her boyfriend Sachidanandan (Shane Nigam) when two creepy strangers accost them, threatening to report them to the police for public indecency. This is a hostage scenario not because the intruders are carrying firearms (they are not) nor because they physically attack (they do not), instead their hold over Vasu and Sachi comes from a thorough grasp of the couple’s psychology and the sociology of that setting.
Sachi is the sort of young man who tends to get aggressive with anyone behaving inappropriately, in his opinion, with Vasu. He is not, however, a hyper-masculine ass. There in that lonely parking lot, he knows that any mindless aggression from him could put both of them, her in particular, at risk. He also knows that if their rendezvous becomes public knowledge, it is she who will be maligned more than he in their conservative patriarchal society. He therefore defers to her decision about how they must conduct themselves in those chilling circumstances.
Like the creeps in the car in director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S. Durga aka Sexy Durga, the two men in this film – Alwin (Shine Tom Chacko) and Mukunthan (Jaffer Idukki) – simultaneously play good-cop-bad-cop and a cat and mouse game with their prey, intimidating them even while pretending to be concerned about their security. The characterisation of these four and the writing of the events that unfold in the pre-interval segment of Ishq are impeccable and insightful.
Writer Ratheesh Ravi’s acute observation powers are on display here, and Anuraj Manohar handles the scenes with sensitivity. Vasu’s tension and Sachi’s frustration over his forced inaction are palpable. As frightening as the awareness that she might be raped or that matters might escalate resulting in death for both is the realisation that what Alwin lusts after is the woman’s fear far more than physical contact with her. This is the most illuminating aspect of Ishq because it points to what feminist experts on sexual crimes have forever been telling us: that sexual violence is not about sex but about power.
Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that even the scene right before the interval is spot on. The way Vasu lashes out at Sachi is believable although she is being unfair to him and contradicting a position she took earlier – after all, human beings do tend to be illogical and even unreasonable while under extreme stress. Sachi’s reaction is just as believable – this world is full of men whose liberalism towards women is only skin deep, but it is just as possible that she misconstrued a question he asked her. The writer’s comprehension of Malayali society and human nature, which are evident up to here, gave me goosebumps.
Then, it all unravels. A film that is at first a condemnation of patriarchal conservatism spends almost its entire remaining 50 percent celebrating machismo, before a twist in the end brings it back on track by which time it is too late.
Ishq is a manifestation of our society’s disinterest in regular folk who react in a regular fashion to sexual violence aimed at them or their loved ones. This is why we as a nation bestowed the offensive title Nirbhaya (The Fearless One) on a woman who died after being gangraped on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 – it was as if she was not worth fighting for unless we could envision her as a Rani of Jhansi cum Joan of Arc. This is why vigilante justice in response to rape is popular in mainstream cinema. Films such as 22 Female Kottayam and Puthiya Niyamam stopped at romanticising revenge though. Ishq goes several steps further in its highly condemnable, self-contradictory second half.
(SPOILER ALERT, please skip this paragraph. Repeat: Spoiler Alert)
If feminism is not a mere gimmick for Messrs Ravi and Manohar, if they are genuinely well intentioned, then they should introspect about the sub-conscious misogyny that caused them to think it is okay to normalise and hero-ise a man who decides to molest a woman as revenge for her husband’s assault on his girlfriend. No excuses please, gentlemen, that scene is designed to elicit audience empathy for him, the drummed-up triumphant background score as he walks away is laudatory in its tone, and no, the turn of events in the climax is not compensation – it simply underlines your confusion and inconsistency.
(Spoiler Alert Ends)
Ishq’s bizarre post-interval proceedings overshadow everything else in it. That is a pity because the film features an incredible cast including Shine Tom Chacko at his best. It beats me why we do not get to see him and the lovely Leona Lishoy more often and in more large roles on screen.
Oh wait, I do know why Ms Lishoy does not get her due. Because few producers are willing to bet their money on women like her and her equally remarkable co-star in this film, Ann Sheetal, both memorable women with acting talent and a solid screen presence, while they invest repeatedly in men who are equally or even less gifted, thus giving these men a chance to evolve as artistes and grow as stars over time.
At least Shane Nigam deserves the space Mollywood gives him. Fresh from the success of Kumbalangi Nights, Nigam gets to up the cuteness quotient of his personality with braces for his teeth in Ishq. As if those dimples were not irresistible enough! He does a commendable job of playing Sachi to the extent that it is possible to be good when yours is the largest role in a film but the only victim of its uneven politics.
Seriously, Ratheesh Ravi and Anuraj Manohar, before waxing eloquent about the moral police, some self-policing of your ideals would be in order.
Minnal Murali was set to release theatrically in 2020 but the film was postponed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Netflix is yet to announce a release date for the movie.
Producer and studio owner G Adiseshagiri Rao, film producer Dil Raju, C Kalyan among others have supported Andhra Pradesh govt's decision to sell movie tickets online
Dulquer Salmaan, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Aju Varghese tweeted condolences for Rizabawa