My enjoyment of most movies doesn’t hinge completely on the quality of the acting. I suppose that, when done well, you’re not even supposed to notice the acting. But the three leads in Ishqiya elevate an otherwise small and straightforward story to a work of art.
The film opens on a loving young couple engaged in a disagreement. The wife, Krishna (Vidya Balan) asks her husband, Vidyadhar (Adil Hussain) to abandon his criminal ways. He’s non-committal, though he professes to love her. As she walks through a dark hallway carrying a sacred flame on a tray, the camera cuts to the exterior of the house as an explosion destroys one of the rooms.
We next see Krishna as she opens the gate surrounding what’s left of the house to admit two of her husband’s former associates. Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are an uncle-nephew pair of thieves on the run from their latest victim, Khalujaan’s brother-in-law. They arrive at the house hoping that Vidyadhar will be able to help them cross the border into Nepal. Krishna informs them that her husband is dead.
She allows them to hide out at her house until they can figure out an escape plan. Krishna’s beautiful voice, which she uses to sing old movie tunes, enchants Khalujaan, even though he’s old enough to be her father.
Khalujaan considers Krishna’s reserved nature evidence of her modesty; Babban thinks she’s hiding something. His suspicions are confirmed when Krishna reveals a dangerous plan to earn them enough money to pay off the brother-in-law and make them all rich.
Ishqiya has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in a Hindi movie. Okay, any movie. Balan plays Krishna perfectly. She’s not your typical seductress. She’s cautious, as a woman who’s been living on her own should be, but she knows how to entice both men to fall for her. Whether that was part of her plan all along or just an impulse of a lonely woman, it’s impossible to tell.
Lately, Shah seems to only get cast in smaller, cameo roles that don’t give him much to do. Khalujaan is the meatiest role I’ve seen him play, and he’s tremendous. Shah is nearly 60, but plays Khulajaan like a teenager with a crush. The performance is both charming and heart-breaking because the odds are against Krishna reciprocating Khalujaan’s feelings.
Before Ishqiya, I disliked Arshad Warsi. In movies like Krazzy 4, Golmaal Returns, and Short Kut, I felt his performances were more loud than funny. I was happy to be proven wrong. Babban is a lech, but Warsi gives him a vulnerability that makes him a viable romantic match for Krishna. His falling for her is inevitable, and a lesser movie would make that love reason enough for her to fall in love with him. Thanks to Warsi, Babban is just charming enough that we believe Krishna could have feelings for him.
Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey does a superb job with his first movie. The story is small, and Chaubey, appropriately, doesn’t overreach. No big special effects, lavish dance numbers or distracting cameos. The attention stays focused on the three leads with straightforward camera work and a direct storytelling style.
Chaubey previously worked with director Vishal Bhardwaj on movies like Makdee, Omkara and Kaminey. The two worked together again on Ishqiya, which Bhardwaj produced and co-wrote. He also wrote the movie’s wonderful music.
In one scene, Krishna sings to herself while chopping vegetables. There’s no accompanying music, just a solo woman’s voice. The visuals and sound editing were so seamless that I was sure it really was Balan singing. Turns out it was the voice of Rekha Bhardwaj, Vishal’s wife.
The scene exemplifies all that’s great about Ishqiya. Chaubey pays close attention to small details, making the film immersive. And he’s willing to give time to such a simple scene that reveals so much about the characters. After such a terrific debut, I’m eager to see what Chaubey does next.
Note: I watched Ishqiya on a DVD produced by Shemaroo. A watermark of the company’s logo appeared in the bottom right corner of the screen throughout the whole movie. Eventually I was able to ignore it, but I found the practice annoying.