Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dedh Ishqiya [dir. Abhishek Chaubey]

There's a bit in Dedh Ishqiya (DI) where Madhuri Dixit's character is performing a kathak dance, and during its course we're treated to a rapid flashbacks that briefly outline her backstory. Alas, little else in the script reflects the economy and precision of that sequence. I don't know if its the need to have an epic running length (2.5 hours in this case) that makes a number of Hindi movies drag in a load of unnecessary and/or stagnant elements, or whether the unthinking concoction of the above culminates in them being groaningly long affairs. I haven't seen the first Ishqiya but this sequel is to my mind a confused messy affair.

While not original, the opening setup which (re)introduces the audience to the thieving uncle-nephew duo (Naseerudddin Shah and Arshad Warsi) is at least brisk. It is once their characters land in the startlingly anachronistic Mahmudabad that the plot descends from entertaining slapstick to purposeless whimsy. We are to believe that Begum Para (Madhuri), the widow of Mahmudabad's Nawab, will select her husband from entrants in a poetry competition. Para preens like a sheltered peacock (okay, hen), while her younger companion Muniya (Huma Qureshi) is the trademark cynical sexually liberated woman now fashionable in Bollywood's "hatke" cinema. What follows then is a tour of crumbling lamp-lit surroundings, a splash of hi-falutin poetry and Begum Akhtar ghazals on gramophone, some dance, a coy courtship with Uncle and Para contrasted by a rougher brush between Nephew and Muniya. I would welcome the change of pace if it added any real depth or thrust to the story. Alas, it seems mostly superficial. The poetry competition makes its presence felt only sporadically and becomes irrelevant just a little way in (for some reason the poets must also compete in skeet-shooting).

Once this premise is established, almost nothing of any consequence happens till more than half the running time, after which we have a yawningly predictable plot twist (which nullifies the purpose of several previous plot points), supplemented by such random chaos (the climax packs in almost every character in the film, for no justifiable cause) as to wonder why no one looked at the script and said "Yeh kya chutiyapa hai?". The only thing that remains striking about DI is the relationship between Para and Muniya. In an age where most of Bollywood continues to use homosexuality only in the vein of tasteless humor, we have here the most thinly veiled depiction of homo-erotic companionship featuring an A-list star (OK Madhuri's not a current gen star, but still).

I am not happy panning DI in this way. The cultured language used in the feudal setting and some stimulating vintage-style music gives it an uncommon flavor, while the low-contrast darkness shrouded visuals of the haveli interiors are a soothing change from the gaudy full-bright mainstream eyesores. But I can't in good conscience recommend this film as well-conceived or consistently entertaining.