Why masala film Dedh Ishqiya is one of the year's most important releases

Deepanjana Pal

January 14, 2014 07:00:52 IST

This article contains spoilers. Don’t roll your eyes. Dedh Ishqiya is now one-weekend old, which means it’s perfectly acceptable for me to disclose that the real twist in Dedh Ishqiya is that Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi may be the protagonists, but the real stars and criminals in the film are Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi.

There is no shortage of either surprises or questions in Dedh Ishqiya. Is Khalujan (Shah) trying to go behind Babban’s (Warsi) back? Can Babban be used against Khalujaan? Will Khalujan abandon Babban once the younger con man has served his purpose in Khalujan’s plan to marry Begum Para (Dixit)? Are Babban and Munniya (Qureshi) the real masterminds of whom Khalujan should be wary?

A still from Dedh Ishqiya.

A still from Dedh Ishqiya.

The one part of Dedh Ishqiya that seems unquestionable is that Babban and Khalu will get Munniya and Begum Para respectively. It’s a neat, beautiful fit of a senior conman and his chela meeting a begum and her companion. You think it’s obvious how this story will progress: sparks will fly, love will flare, the elder couple will retire gracefully leaving the younger duo to live happily ever after, keeping alive the hope of further sequels. When Begum Para tucks her head into the crook of Khalujaan’s neck and he tenderly holds her delicate hand in his, it’s as though Dedh Ishqiya is paying an ode to images of Mughal-era romances. Meanwhile, Babban and Munniya keep it modern, real and sexy by making out frantically in the oldhaveli.

With this playing out as it does, the question of whether you’ll anticipate the real twist in Dedh Ishqiya’s tale depends on

a) how much of Indian literature you’ve read

b) how much faith you repose in director and co-screenwriter Abhishek Chaubey and producer, co-screenwriter and dialogue writer Vishal Bharadwaj.

If you’ve read Ismat Chughtai and are a true fan of the Chaubey-Bharadwaj combo, then you’ll have anticipated the twist, but rest assured, nothing prepares you for the beauty of that ultimate reveal.

Munniya and Begum Para’s closeness seems to follow in the long tradition of hired help becoming more trustworthy and close than family. When Begum Para is failed by her husband, it is Munniya who becomes her emotional anchor. As the duo reveal themselves to be a more genteel version of Thelma and Louise, only the truly naive will not suspect there’s more than convention allows in a relationship that lets Munniya press kisses in Begum Para’s hair. But just then, Munniya jumpstarts her romance with Babban and Dedh Ishqiya seems to falling in line with the prevalent belief that what a real woman needs is the love of a macho man.

This is the elaborate set up for one of the most beautiful sequences in the film. Khalujan and Babban are sitting in a darkened warehouse, slumped, their hands bound. Across from them, on a raised floor, is a fire that casts the wall behind Babban and Khalujan in golden light. On that wall, a shadow play is enacted. We see silhouettes of Begum dancing, Munniya coming so close to her that they become one shadow; the shifting shapelessness of two people coming together to create an abstract, indistinct form that is simply passion. Compared to the women's love projected on the wall as enormous, dancing shadows, the two men are so terribly puny and mundane with their little greed and inflated egos.

Just to confirm literary suspicions, a little before this enchanting vision in gold and shadow, dialogue writer Bharadwaj gives Khalujan a line that seems like a non sequitur. “Lihaaf maang le”, a laughing Khalujan says to Babban as it dawns on the younger man that he’s been played expertly by Munniya. It seems like a throwaway line, but it’s actually an adaab of sorts to Chughtai’s short story “Lihaaf”, which was banned for being obscene by the government in the early 1940s. Chughtai challenged the decision and won in court, unshackling her short story about an aristocratic woman and her lesbian lover from the straitjacket imposed upon it by the delicate, conservative sensibilities of that era.

In Chughtai’s “Lihaaf”, Begum Jaan (like Begum Para) is married to a seemingly wonderful nawab who has not time for her because he is somewhat fascinated by young men. Trapped in this unhappy marriage, Begum Jaan suffers for years before finding a lover in her masseuse, Rabbu. Had Rabbu been a man, eyebrows would have been raised but Chughtai probably wouldn’t have faced the harassment she did. But Rabbu in “Lihaaf” is a woman. The fact that she is always massaging Begum Jaan and even sleeping in the same bed as her is accepted because no one imagines any sexual intimacy between them. It’s when Begum Jaan’s young niece comes visiting that their arrangement faces some scrutiny. A bed is made in Begum Jaan’s room for her niece and the girl is terrified at night by the slurping noises she hears in the dark and the way Begum Jaan’s quilt shakes: “vigorously, as though an elephant was struggling inside.”

At the heart of “Lihaaf” is the fear of the unknown, which paralyses the young niece with fear and renders her blind to the harmless simplicity of what is actually happening in the room, under Begum Jaan’s quilt. In Dedh Ishqiya, Chaubey, Bharadwaj and Darab Farooqui’s (who is credited with writing the story) homage to Chughtai presents a significant difference. Instead of a young girl, it’s the grizzled, old Khalujan who is witness and he's not in the dark. Even though he has been rebuffed and conned by Begum Para and Munniya, even though he is bound as a result of his own actions, when he sees the two women together, he is struck by the beauty of their intimacy. The expression on his face is of sheer wonder.

Usually, if there’s a potentially controversial or provocative element in a Bollywood film, we’re inundated with sound bytes that depict the actors and filmmakers as people who have boldly gone where no one has gone before. But there was none of that hoopla for Dedh Ishqiya. The film treats a love affair between two women the way it treats the camaraderie between two men: normally and delightedly. Not just that, it cheekily shows how the fabulously-inflated heterosexual male ego is incapable of processing the notion of a friendship between a man and a woman. Near the climax of the film, both Babban and Khalujan are intent upon casting themselves as Begum Para and Munniya’s saviours even though the women have outwitted them repeatedly and made it quite clear that they’re not romantically inclined towards anyone but each other. Still, Babban and Khalujan labour under the illusion that the women need them. Ultimately, not only do the two women manage fine without them, they’re the ones who save Babban and Khalujaan from rotting in jail.

Last year ended with the Supreme Court disappointing millions in India when it declared in a judgement that decriminalising homosexuality was not within the judiciary’s brief. How deliciously provocative it is to have one of the first releases of this new year to have a lesbian relationship in it. Not just that, the relationship is portrayed as beautifully normal in a mainstream, commercial Hindi film that has all the masala elements that you'd expect from Bollywood (including a completely unnecessary scene of Madhuri Dixit dancing).

To Abhishek Chaubey, Vishal Bharadwaj and Darab Farooqui, bravo! Never mind the depressing statistic that the unwatchable inanity called Yaariyan made more money than Dedh Ishqiya did on its opening day. The fact that Dedh Ishqiya was made and released just weeks after the Supreme Court judgement makes this one of the most important films to be released this year (even if we’re only in January). And the fact that it’s out in theatres and making money warms the cockles of all liberal hearts, just as possessed quilt did Begum Jaan in Chughtai’s “Lihaaf”.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2014 07:31 AM