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.
Years later and still snooty, I went to see Dedh Ishqiya – literally, “Of One and a Half Love”. It follows the absolutely delightful Ishqiya (“Of Love”), and follows the further adventures of the charmingly criminal uncle-and-nephew pair: Naseruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi. Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi takes over from Vidya Balan as the female leads, and it only occurs to me now, as I write this, that the director had to have made a conscious decision to go with the old-school Indian ideal of beauty: generously built, a glowing skin reminiscent of buttery richness, deeply sensual and assertive in her own sphere. I think it was a very wise choice. The contemporary ideal of slender or sculpted and toned bodies would perhaps seem a little anachronistic in the milieu of nawabs, begums, public poetry battles and richly detailed formal wear that the director invokes. Happily, this casting decision introduced me to the loveliness that is Ms. Qureshi, and for that, I am truly grateful.
But what struck me most about this film was the prominent visual acknowledgement of the film’s inspiration – one of Ismat Chugtai’s wonderful short stories called “Lihaaf” – instead of hiding it under layers and layers of cultural modifiers. Abhishek Chaubey’s fanfiction-like “thank you for letting me play” card to Chugtai is displayed prominently in the somewhat drawn-out denouement sequence. Indeed, the entire production had been constructed as a privileged, never-before-seen expanded view of the world Chugtai showed us a very brief glimpse of, and for people who have read the story, it’s that much of an extra delight.
Personally, I think it’s also to the director’s credit that he can successfully meld contemporary cultural references (such as the chow mein theory of rape) with the distinctly early 1900s Princely State urban charm. Less to his credit was the process of turning this combo setup into a crime-caper, but well-placed witticisms rescue the action from being completely boring or banal.
But to be honest, I mostly enjoyed Dedh Ishqiya for its cheekiness, and deliberate flouting unwritten cultural rules. It takes a certain amount of courage, to say nothing of a sense of mischief, to release a film in an election year – when conservative fervour runs very high – featuring:
(a) two gorgeous women in a loving sexual relationship with each other;
(b) a virile man being – in his own words – “used as a whore” by a woman;
(c) beautifully filled-out female leads;
(d) a senior cit. male romantic lead, a middle-aged female romantic lead;
(e) and general devil-may-care fun-pokery at Bollywood’s beloved stereotypes of “Indian culture”.
Plus, of course, it’s very aesthetically gratifying to have Madhuri Dixit in this sort of stylised roles. She’s a beautiful woman, and the period-dramaesque ambience, make-up and outfits suit her beautifully at this stage of her career. I was surprised to see a small amount of stiffness in her performance, but I mostly watch Bollywood films for sensory indulgence, and not close performance-evaluation, so I was OK with it.
The entire point of writing this post is this: If tribute there must be, or outright stealing of thought, then as an admirer of beauty and a pennywise paying consumer, I insist they be as witty, mischievous and gorgeous as Dedh Ishqyia. Despite its slightly loose editing – a good twenty minutes off would have made the film crisper and more amusing – Dedh Ishqyia is a delight. The most enticing aspect of the film is certainly Mr. Shah’s presence, but Vijay Raaz, Arshad Warsi, the music and the female leads’ wardrobes all finish a close second.