February Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

Word on the street was that Dedh Ishqiya is one of the smartest comedies to come out of Bollywood in a while. As most of the comedies that Bollywood churns out on a regular basis are less than stellar, that’s not saying much. Still, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (released in 2010) was very well received, and Dedh Ishqiya, its sequel, not only stars the great Naseeruddin Shah but also the lovely Madhuri Dixit, who returns to the screen after seven years (that one song in Ye Jawaani Hai Deewani notwithstanding). The film was also commended for its comedy, which was said to be clever and quite different from the usual slapstick campiness. As it turns out, ‘different’ does not necessarily mean better and I left the theatre wondering whether I had seen the same film as everybody else.

The premise of the film is certainly different, even if it is unnecessarily convoluted. Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) return in this instalment as the loveable but bumbling uncle-nephew con men duo who are fresh off their last heist, where they stole a necklace made out of royal jewels. After parting ways, Khalu moves on to his next con, which involves pretending to be the nawab of a made-up place in order to woo the graceful Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit), widow of the late Nawab of Mahmudabad. Begum Para holds an annual festival where Urdu poets compete with each other to win her hand in marriage. Among those Urdu poets is Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), a low-life thug with rock-star hair, who also happens to be pretending to be a nawab for the very same reasons as Khalu. Soon, Babban catches up with Khalu and teams up with Begum Para’s feisty friend Munniya (Huma Qureshi) for his own con — this one involving the kidnapping of Begum Para herself. Hijinks predictably ensue, and there are some interesting twists and turns in the story.

The problem with Dedh Ishqiya is that it does have some interesting elements that could have been utilised better to make a more compelling film, but which instead are quickly rushed past in favour of pointless idiocy. For example, the mushaira-esque festival, where the participants have a sort of Battle of the Verses where Urdu poetry is the medium of the competition, is entertaining to watch. Watching Khalu don the persona of a refined Urdu poet to slay the other unpolished participants with his verse is amusing, especially since Shah is so convincingly effortless in this part of the role. The actors’ performances overall are quite good, especially Dixit, who gives her character some gravitas (she also dances as wonderfully as ever). Moreover, if handled correctly, the over-the-top ceremoniousness of the entire festival which hides the debauchery of all parties involved could have been a clever satire on the splendour and decadence of the nawab culture of the past. But the jokes are all empty and meaningless, and focus too much on the ‘bumbling heroes outwitting the even more bumbling villains’ trope, which is really not clever at all. The narrative is also very messy, with too much going on all at one. This is best exemplified by the climax scene which goes on and on in a haphazard, senseless manner.

However, the film does get points for not restricting the women of the film to the ‘dumb bimbos’ stereotype. In fact, it turns the gender clichés on their head a bit. The men sit around spouting poetry and being lovelorn (Khalu eventually falls in love with Begum Para for real, to the surprise of absolutely no one in the audience), while the women take matters into their own hands and get things done. Both Begum Para and Munniya are very empowered; they are unapologetic about doing whatever it takes to look out for themselves, including double crossing our lead men, which is refreshing. Begum Para’s backstory, involving a marriage with an inattentive man who gambled away all their wealth and left her in huge amounts of debt, is even more effective because it spurs her into action instead of letting her wallow or wait for a man to save her. Even more refreshing is the fact that the film does not begrudge these women their self-preservation and strength — their tenacity is portrayed in a positive light, and it is not suddenly subverted in the end by them realising how much they love our heroes. (There is also an implication that there might be something more between Begum Para and Munniya, including Begum Para calling Munniya her humsafar and a reference to Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf, which was about lesbianism. But it’s all very subtle, which is surprising considering how crass the rest of the film is).

Dedh Ishqiya is a film which had potential. But having potential is not enough to make a good film.  A good film is supposed to entertain you, not make you feel like you just spent the last two and a half hours watching something meaningless and  inane. So it is, in fact, a notch above the usual silly, slapsticky romps of Bollywood comedies, but just barely.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue under the headline, “A Notch Above.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.