Ishqiya is better than most films the Hindi film industry makes, even if its pleasures weren’t the ones I was expecting. I went into the film looking for a taut, erotically charged thriller about a femme fatale manipulating two saps over a pot of gold, film noir in a bhaiyya-setting as it were. What I got was a compelling evocation of a small-town U.P. milieu (the (in)famous badlands of Gorakhpur district, along the Nepal border), a locale debutant director Abhishek Chaubhey has presented even more naturally than his mentor Vishal Bhardwaj ever managed with his out-of-the-way settings in either Maqbool or Omkara(that is to say, Chaubhey does it “simply”, such that the presentation of the milieu (to “outsiders”) does not itself become the point of the film). Thus, in place of the exoticized Muslim gangsters of Maqbool, we have Khalujan/Iftiqar (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban/Raza Hussain (Arshad Warsi), two small-time thieves who don’t perform either their “Muslimness”, or their “U.P.-ness” — the viewer simply finds them as they are. As (s)he does Krishna (Vidya Balan), the lady of the house where the two thieves have sought refuge, on the run from Mushtaqbhai (played by the famous Pakistani actor Salman Shahid) over the small matter of 20 (missing) lakhs.
The dialogs and interplay between the three principal characters are the best part about the film: each of the three loves to talk, and two of them — Khalujan and Krishna — share a great weakness for old Hindi film songs (the third, well, Babban’s heart is more likely to skip a beat in response to Apna Sapna Money Money‘s “Dekha jo tujhe yaar / Dil mein baje guitar”; although, make no mistake, all three take their cue from that film’s title), and the film is strongest when the viewer’s ear is thus engaged (including by several of the film’s supporting characters, ranging from a savory old village woman — “tai” — to the precocious Nandu to the local steel baron K.K.). Stated differently, the film is weakest when it tries to justify its title, or Krishna’s pregnant dialog “ishq mein sab bevajaa hota hai” (“In love, nothing is with reason”; that is to say, love is its own reason, and needs none other, even as it shades into meaninglessness in a terrain dominated by hunger and conflict): the insight — and the plot device needed to drive the point home — seems forced, firmly inserting far too much contrived “vajaa” for my liking. A hot kiss between Babban and Krishna notwithstanding, the film never comfortably seems like it’s about three people deranged by Eros, so much as about three people down on their luck and thrown together.
The acting performances hold the film together. None are less than competent, but Warsi, Shahid, and the boy who plays Nandu are easily the standouts, with Warsi’s Babban cheerfully hogging the limelight. Shah is probably incapable of delivering a bad performance on this sort of “small film” terrain, but does suffer from the fact that his hugely enjoyable character takes a rather passive turn in the film’s second half. Balan’s Krishna is no natural femme fatale, but Chaubhey uses her well: this siren seduces more with her voice, her singing, and her love of word-play, than the promos might lead one to believe (sure, she brandishes a gun and, later, suggestively sucks Babban’s bleeding thumb to light his fire, but then again, what else would work with a mind as unsubtle as his?). All in all, the film is pretty good fun, so don’t be a ______ sulfate: Ishqiya deserves to be seen, not least because it will acquaint you with the sort of compound your chemistry teacher never told you about (but that even the tai is intimately familiar with).