Any movie that opens with a languid, warmly-lit amble along the rolling curves of the supine body of Vidya Balan is a movie I am going to like. A lot. When I mentioned I was watching Ishqiya, several friends expressed surprise that I hadn't yet seen it. ("That is basically inconceivable," said Beth.) For what it's worth, I do have an excuse. I was a late boarder on the Vidya train; I did not realize that this mind-stompingly gorgeous woman was the love of my life until halfway through my first viewing of Kahaani just about a year ago. I have been playing catch-up - but pacing myself - ever since. Having said that, in Ishqiya, Vidya is about as ohmigodHOT as a woman can be without violating several multilateral treaties.
Indeed, I don't know how to write about this movie without dissolving into a gelatinous heap of gush. And not just for Vidya, either. Ishqiya's director, Abhishek Chaubey, studied at the knee of Vishal Bhardwaj (who produced the film), and Bhardwaj's masterful influence is all over this striking, wry movie. Its tone is reminiscent of the most dry and funny vignettes of 7 Khoon Maaf. Its narrative is less rangy than that of 7 Khoon Maaf, however, and therefore less lurchy. Two of the dumbest criminals ever to cross a filmi screen, Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew Babban (Arshad Warsi), are in flight from their boss, Mushtaq (Salman Shahid), whom they have cheated out of some 25 lakhs. The pair takes refuge in the home of Krishna (Vidya Balan), widow of their erstwhile business associate, the smuggler Vidyadhar Verma (Adil Hussain). Both men fall for the quiet, intense Krishna, who hatches a plan to kidnap a local steel magnate KK Kakkad (Rajesh Sharma) for ransom. But the kidnapping soon unravels and the men slowly realize that Krishna has manipulated all of them - Khalu, Babban, and even KK - for her own mysterious purposes.There is craft in every aspect of this Ishqiya. It is as beautifully shot as any Bhardwaj movie, and in the same warm, enveloping earth tones that can make a a movie as seductive for the eyes as lush caramel is on the tongue. From the throaty reds of Krishna's sarees, to the damp brown clutter of the interior of her home, to the salted beige landscapes of the Uttar Pradesh countryside, every frame of this movie is almost tactile in its richness. Bhardwaj's score, as his music usually does, adds texture and character, from the jaunty swagger of "Ibn-e-Batuta" to the sweet lilt of "Dil to bachha hai ji."
The characterizations are meticulously detailed in both writing and performance. Khalujaan is philosophical and poetic, the brighter bulb of the two thieves, but not by a lot. As he trims his beard, dyes his hair, dons handsome traditional clothes, and discusses the finer points of evergreen filmi songs with Krishna, Khalu projects the air of a man who does not necessarily want to shed the grit of his criminal life, but who wants to look as though he wants to shed it. His love for Krishna is a touching mixture of passionate and avuncular; it's not clear exactly what relationship he wants to have with her, but it's clear that it's very loving. Babban's style is more bombastic; his stupidity displays in rash, testosterone-driven bursts rather than Khalu's intellectual posing. In one scene, Mushtaq and his men track down the pair when they run into Babban at a brothel in the town near Krishna's village; one has the impression that Mushtaq knows well that the most efficient way to find Babban in any city in the country is always to make a beeline for the nearest brothel. The performances of Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi as these not-so-clever medium-time crooks are pitch perfect, just the right mixture of grit and scene-chewing to be both endearing and eye-rolling. It's hard not feel sorry for them when it becomes clear just how outclassed they are by Krishna, even when you facepalmed at their ill-considered antics just a few scenes before.
And then there is Vidya Balan, as smoldering, fierce, and sexy in this role as in any other. (I considered doing this review in the style of my piece on The Dirty Picture - a debate between my analytic intellectual ego and my horny lesbian id - but my id did not have much to say beyond "Guh...." A superbly executed sex scene had me wistfully craving an alternate universe in which I could be Arshad Warsi.) But as gorgeous and fierce as Vidya is, there is a great deal of nuance to Krishna; the character is not merely a cartoon femme fatale with an eye for manipulable men. Krishna begins the film as a loving wife, anxiously imploring Verma to give up the dangerous smuggler's life and turn himself in to the authorities. Krishna's circumstances and what she has endured - not an inherent vicious streak or a flaw in her nature - drive her to the bold and violent actions she takes as the film unfolds. This is evident the first time she overtly betrays Khalu and Babban. The men have gotten into a fight - mostly over her - while she waits in their getaway car with their kidnapping prey, the dazed and bound KK, lolling in the backseat. Krishna hesitates nervously before taking the wheel and speeding away with their prize. This is a woman with a plan, but not a woman so cold as to have no need to muster her courage before executing. It is just one of a myriad finely wrought details that make Krishna - like everything else about Ishqiya - thoroughly compelling.