3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Unlike most movies produced by Yash Raj Films, Ishaqzaade (“Love Rebels”) didn’t get a major roll-out in North American theaters when it released in India in May. Instead, YRF waited to show Ishaqzaade — rechristened as “Born to Hate…Destined to Love” — at the Toronto International Film Festival, where its global sales rights were acquired by Shoreline Entertainment.
Even though the film is already available on DVD in the U.S., I hope the new acquisition means greater theatrical exposure for Ishaqzaade. It’s a tremendous movie.
Ishaqzaade is a Romeo & Juliet-type romance set in the terrifying world of local politics in Uttar Pradesh. It’s election season in the town of Almore, and the reigning politician, Qureshi, is challenged by the patriarch of the Chauhan family. Besides political animosity, the families are divided by religion as well: the Qureshis are Muslim, the Chauhans are Hindu.
Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) is the youngest of his grandfather’s grandsons. He’s marginalized in the family hierarchy in part because of his age, but also because his mother is a widow (not that she was responsible for her husband’s death). Parma is desperate to get in his grandfather’s good graces, but Parma’s attitude makes him a liability.
Parma has the devastating combination of a short temper and a sense of entitlement. When a merchant mentions selling diesel fuel to the Qureshis, Parma burns the merchant’s warehouse “to teach him a lesson.” He fails to consider that abusing the common folk hurts his grandfather’s election prospects.
The youngest member of the Qureshi family is Zoya (Parineeti Chopra), herself something of a firebrand. She’s responsible for coordinating her father’s campaign on her college campus, but is eager to do more. When Parma and his goons kidnap a dancer performing at a Qureshi party, Zoya chases after him in her jeep while firing her newly acquired pistol. However, her father’s plans for her are limited to marrying Zoya off to a banker from London, and he laughs at her political ambitions.
Zoya and Parma’s story really begins with an on-campus encounter. He urinates on her father’s campaign poster. She slaps him. He points a gun at her. Parma is impressed that Zoya doesn’t flinch at the loaded gun. She’s impressed when he sneaks into the girls’ bathroom to apologize.
This story is not Romeo & Juliet, however. When Parma starts pursuing Zoya, he’s still the same deplorable person who burned the merchant’s warehouse. Zoya is immature in her own right, in that she allows her feelings to override her awareness that her father would never allow her to marry a Hindu, let alone a member of the Chauhan family.
Ishaqzaade never lets romantic film conventions obscure the social norms of the region in which the film takes place. Religious differences are not something to be toyed with and are not easily overcome. Politics can be a similarly deadly enterprise, with seemingly no offense too minor to be greeted with gunfire.
I was most fascinated with the role of women in the film. Zoya’s headstrong personality makes her a fine mascot within her family, but doesn’t lend itself to a quiet life as a wife and mother, the only future her father sees for her. Zoya’s mother and Parma’s mother are sympathetic to her but pragmatic as well. Undersized and out-gunned, the women in both families have little choice but to submit to the will of the men.
The only other women in Ishaqzaade outside of the two families are prostitutes. The kidnapped dancer, Chand Baby (Gauhar Khan), is admired for her beauty and dancing skills, but it’s always clear where she ranks in the social order. Chauhan refers to her as “the whore.”
When men place so much emphasis on controlling women (and their sexuality in particular), it makes women a natural target for exploitation. From a practical standpoint, it seems a squandering of resources. Zoya’s brothers are good for carrying out simple orders, but they lack her cleverness and passionate commitment to the cause.
Chopra does a great job making Zoya feisty, yet vulnerable and naive. After all, she’s essentially still a kid. Kapoor has a swagger that makes Parma loathsome while simultaneously betraying the insecurity fueling the bravado. Parma is not a loveable character, but he is fascinating to watch. The lead actors’ performances are well-executed in a movie that demands much from its cast and its audience.