Bulletpoints: Dedh Ishqiya


  • There’s a moment in the second half of Dedh Ishqiya where Arshad Warsi’s Babban drags Huma Qureshi’s Muniya into a corner to discuss their future (travelling the world, apparently). Babban has so far failed to grasp the obvious–that Muniya has no interest in sharing a future with him– and so she makes it clear with some well-timed shaming. These men keep confusing sex for love, she says; she slept with him, but that was it. It’s funny for a moment because it’s a reversal, because so often in stories like this it’s the men for whom casual sex is casual, the women who are portrayed as clingy and over-attached. But then Babban, rejected and humiliated, reacts by beating her, shoving her against the wall; her sounds of protest become increasingly panicky, and we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
  • It’s a scene that is all the more striking because we know that violence isn’t that serious in this film. Babban may be at the mercy, temporarily, of a gang lord; Khalujaan may be shot while escaping with the jewels, Jaan Mohammed’s men may occupy our heroes in a standoff that lasts all night but most of these have no real consequences (and the last ends in comedy). Violence takes place in a sort of golden world where nothing truly bad can happen, and where we can guiltlessly enjoy the picaresque adventures of the main characters without feeling uncomfortable about some of their crimes. Even the film’s title, which to me echoes the dhishkiaaon of the overexaggerated bollywood bullet, signals this. It comes as a shock, then, to realise that there are forms of violence that are violent and I like the film better for subjecting us to it, and for making one of its loveable heroes the perpetrator.
  • Gender isn’t the only source of violence though. The villain of the piece is Jaan Mohammed, the local MLA who is in love with both Madhuri’s Begum Para and the life that she represents. But he is also unfitted for that world–unlike Khalujaan, who seems to have the sort of background that allows him to believably fake “nawabiyat”, Jaan Mohammed has to kidnap a real member of that class to write his poetry for him. But Nawab Italvi escapes and now the law (in the form of honest Malayali cop and his minions) is on his side, as indeed it should be on the side of kidnap victims. But once the force of the law has been brought to bear upon him we see Jaan Mohammed stripped of his shirt, beaten and bleeding as Italvi viciously reminds him that he’ll always be an outsider to Italvi’s own world.
  • The world Jaan Mohammed so longs for is a romanticised version of that inhabited by upper-class Muslims decades ago–I’m not sure it even exists anymore. There’s been some fantastic commentary on the ways in which Dedh Ishqiya uses Urdu not just as a language (though it is a film that revels in wordplay) but as signifier to a whole culture. We’re encouraged to view the haveli through a haze of romance. It’s almost a fairytale.
  • And if it’s a fairytale, Madhuri Dixit is its princess. There’s something fairy-talish anyway about the idea of the swayamvar, princes competing to win the hand of the woman they all desire. One of my favourite things about Dedh Ishqiya is the way it uses the iconography of Madhuri Dixit almost as much as it uses the actress herself–when she appears to greet the participants in the mushaira she’s lovely and remote and gracious and unattainable, more symbol than person.
  • Except of course that she is a person, with a life and love that none of her admiring suitors expects. Begum Para in her private life is worried and nervous and affectionate and physically close to Muniya. Late in the first half of the film Khalujaan/Iftekaar convinces Para to dance again, as she used to when she was younger (and how nice to see multiple, untroubled references to the fact that a beautiful woman is growing older). It’s all a pretty blatant excuse to give us Madhuri dancing onscreen, but while it happens we see a series of men watching through windows: Iftekaar and Babban in the present, Iftekaar’s younger self in flashback. They are all on the outside; it’s to Muniya that Para turns to share her joy in this gift that she has got back.
  • By now it’s not a spoiler that the film features what is pretty evidently a queer romance. There’s a direct reference made by one of the characters to Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”, but the film also borrows from that story for the histories of its own characters. Para is the beautiful Begum, married off to a Nawab who much prefers the company of young men; Muniya is the faithful servant who nurses her back to health. Chughtai’s story is told from the perspective of a child who finds the whole relationship sinister, and there’s an incident where the Begum appears to take an interest in the child. I love many things about “Lihaf” (most of all the mere fact of its existence) but this moment in which same sex attraction is shown to be predatory has made me uncomfortable since I read it. (Here‘s a piece that goes into some of this, and that also provides a translation of the story) Dedh Ishqiya strips these aspects of the story away, and substitutes Rabbu’s jealousy with Muniya’s demonstrative protectiveness, and leaves us with a loving, joyful relationship between two women.
  • I think it’s that joy that makes this film feel *important* — independently of the ways in which it is otherwise smart and funny and happy-making. I have friends whose reaction to the film was to be thrilled at seeing people like us onscreen and happy; that’s not really how I react to film, but I know that it matters. And it’s just thrown out there and accepted immediately by at least one of our main characters (I don’t think Babban has read Chughtai) and Khalujaan continues to treat the Begum with the same almost courtly love as before.
  • My screening of Dedh Ishqiya did not have subtitles as I’m told others did; it did have an interval during which one of the two trailers (the other was for something titled One by Two) was for Gulaab Gang. My feelings about this movie are more wary than anything else (though I hadn’t realised how much my 90s-Bollywood-watching childhood self craved evil Juhi Chawla) but I was rather pleased by how neatly some of the scenes in the trailer echoed others in the second half of the film I was watching. I’m now convinced that having driven off in their car and started a dance school, Begum Para and Muniya turn her students into a militant feminist group.
  • I do miss Vidya Balan though.



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