The game of pinball, with its flashing lights and flippers, has much in common with Ishqiya, the directorial debut from Abhishek Chaubey. In pinball, a ball is launched by the player through the use of a plunger. The point of the game is to keep the ball in motion all the time, and a skilled pinball player will not only keep the ball moving, he will surprise you with how skilfully he manipulates the flippers and makes use of the dips and bumpers to keep the ball humming along, often surprising you with the sudden changes in direction.
It’s obvious from watching Ishqiya that Chaubey has learned the art of cinematic pinball well, both as a screenplay writer and/or an Assistant Director on a number of Vishal Bhardwaj’s films, most notably Omkara, as well as last year’s Kaminey.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s influence is evident in Chaubey’s film – Bhardwaj is not only one of the film’s producers, he also penned its dialogues, contributed to the screenplay, and wrote its excellent and stylish music (along with lyricist Gulzar). However, it is also true that Ishqiya owes much to classic Hollywood film noir (not only in its isolated setting and its spectacular and often intimate cinematography, but also with its femme fatale), served up with a side of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (especially in the ambiguity of the film’s closing frames).
Ishqiya is an adult film in the best sense of that term: it is intelligent, well-crafted, and requires some patience and attention to detail on the part of the audience. It is sly, sensuous, and earthy, yet never truly vulgar or crude. It definitely flirts with both in the name of realism, but never just for shock value.
Ishqiya is a film about the most basic motivations in human nature: greed, lust and revenge. It’s about deception, fidelity, faithlessness and devotion.
Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are two petty criminals who have double-crossed their boss, Mushtaq. On the run, they seek shelter at the home of a friend, only to discover that he’s dead, blown up in an explosion. His widow, Krishna (Vidya Balan), agrees to take them in anyway, and eventually the three join forces in an elaborate plan to kidnap the head of a steel manufacturing business.
What works best in Ishqiya, ultimately, are the spectacular performances of the film’s three leads: Naseeruddin Shah as the vulnerable, romantic Khalujan, Arshad Warsi as the decidedly unromantic, but definitely lascivious Babban, and above all, Vidya Balan as Krishna. All three create characters whose motivations may be shady, who are not entirely good people – yet nor are they completely bad, either. They are, in the end, achingly human, and allow us to sympathize with them even when we know we shouldn’t, when their behaviour is such that we really should condemn them.
Ultimately though, the film belongs to Vidya Balan through and through – to their credit, director Chaubey and his fellow scriptwriters Vishal Bhardwaj and Sabrina Dhawan have created one of the strongest, most compelling female characters to grace the screen in a very long time. Krishna is the biblical Eve incarnate, and if traditionally Eve is viewed as a temptress, she is also often viewed as a victim, and occasionally as a taker of risks. Krishna is all of these: there is a sweetness in her love of music and a vulnerability in her flirting with Khalujan; there is an earthiness and lustiness in her that matches that of Babban; and there is strength and determination in her, too. It takes the length of the film and the measured and skillful performance of Vidya Balan to show us Krishna’s many layers and qualities, and it’s her character which serves to drive the narrative forward.
There is a scene during the opening credits of the film that foreshadows things beautifully: Babban and Khalujan are driving through the countryside in a stolen car. There is a voluptuous rubber Eve figurine hanging from the rear-view mirror, swinging back and forth between them to the rhythm of the ride. Khalujan polishes an apple on his shirt, and offers a bite to Babban. Khalujan tosses the apple out the window, they continue on their way, and the next person they meet is the beautiful, sensuous Krishna, who knows just how to tempt each of them and manipulate them for her own ends. It takes the whole film to savour that apple, bite by bite, until we discover the truth about Krishna at its core.
Ishqiya‘s plot swings wildly at times, like the ball in the pinball machine. The ride is occasionally bumpy, yet the ball is never put out of play. Abhishek Chaubey may not yet be one of those mythical Pinball Wizards that The Who sang about, but he has certainly shown, with his first film, that at the very least, he can sure play a mean pinball.