I saw Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam on television a year or so after its release (we shall return to it in a future post, perhaps, as I have much to say about its antecedents). For the next few days, I hounded every acquaintance who could conceivably have read the book, and exclaimed, “Goodness, did you see? Sanjay Leela Bhansali lifted the story straight off Naw Hawnyate! And he didn’t even give Maitreyi Debi credit!”
The connection had slipped most people by, and I felt rather intellectually superior for having spotted it. And I certainly felt very culturally superior when I considered how much Bhansali had to doll-up and commercialise ["cheapen", in Calcutta Bengali parlance] the original story to suit the style of mainstream Hindi cinema.
In my defence, I was young, snooty, and very middle-class Bengali.
Years later and still snooty, I went to see Dedh Ishqiya. Literally “One and a half Love”, it follows the absolutely delightful Ishqiya (“Of Love”) with the same male leads, but Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qurishi taking on from Vidya Balan as the female star. It only occurs to me now, as I write this, that the director had to have made a conscious decision go with the old-school Indian ideal of beauty – generous, glowing, reminiscent of soft buttery richness, deeply sensual, assertive – instead of the toned and sculpted contemporary look. And it is a very wise choice. In a film set in fictional town which has a foot firmly in an earlier era of nawabs, begums and poetry battles, modernity of beauty would not have worked. This decision has also introduced me to the loveliness that is Ms. Qureshi, and for that, I am truly thankful.
Huma Qureshi with Arshad Warsi, as Muniya and Babban in Dedh Ishqiya.
It is also to the eternal credit of the filmmaker, that despite working in contemporary references (“chow mein“) and stylistically making the film entirely his own, Dedh Ishqiya succeeds in being a beautiful expansion – and privileged behind-the-veil view – of Ismat Chugtai’s wonderful story “Lihaaf”.
For those not familiar, “Lihaaf” – or “Quilt” – is the tale of an emotionally and sexually abandoned begum locked in the castle of her conservative and indifferent royal husband, who finds validation, fulfilment, and the will to live in the arms of her maid Rabbo (Muniya in the film, a beautified version of the original).
It takes great courage and wicked amusement, I think, to release a film in an election year – when conservative fervour runs very high – featuring two gorgeous women in a loving sexual relationship with each other, a virile man being – in his own words – “used as a whore” by a woman, beautifully filled-out female leads, a senior cit. male romantic lead, a middle-aged female romantic lead, and general devil-may-care poke-funnery at stereotypical Bollywood “Indianness”. And oh, did I mention how gratifying it is to have Madhuri Dixit back on screen, even if she did seem a little stiltled in the earlier scenes?
The gorgeous Madhuri Dixit as Begum Para, who I am so very glad to have back.
If tribute there must be, or outright stealing of thought, then as an admirer of beauty and a pennywise paying consumer, I must insist they be this clever, this mischievous, this delightful, and this gorgeous. Despite its slightly generous editing – a good twenty minutes off would have made the film crisper and more amusing – this film is one to be treasured. The most enticing aspect of the film is certainly Mr. Shah’s presence, but Arshad Warsi, Madhuri Dixit, Vijay Raaz, the music, and the dialogue all finish a close second.
The wonderful Naseruddin Shah as Iftekhar.