Ishqiya, the Kachori Western Served With Noir Ki Chutney

Bollywood

Ishqiya, the Kachori Western Served With Noir Ki Chutney

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

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ometimes, all you need to establish a movie’s universe, is a single line. “Babumoshai, zindagi lambi nahi, badi honi chahiye,” was enough to sum up the worldview of Anand. When a character taunts, “Rahul is a cheater” it’s indication that you’re in the cotton-candy world of Karan Johar. Much the same way, “Humaare gaon mein chuttad dhone se pehle tamanche chalaana sikhate hai (in our village, you’re taught how to fire a pistol before you learn how to wash your bum),” is the jolt you need to be catapulted into the gun-slinging milieu of Ishqiya.

The film – set in the badlands of Gorakhpur, a land where caste wars and crime rates abide, and saffron-clad bald men give hate speeches – turns eight today. A film that can best be described as a kachori western served with noir ki chutney.

At its heart, Ishqiya is the story of Krishna, the widow of a well-known crime lord and her tryst with two con men, Babban and his Khaalujaan. And Mushtaq Bhai, perhaps the most endearing villain you’ll ever find in a Bollywood film, outsmarted by a mere “latifa”. The film begins as a testosterone-laden Thelma and Louise, as Khaalu and Babban drive into the Uttar Pradesh sky in a stolen car with a bag of cash, and a song that invokes the legendary itinerant, Ibn Batuta. They arrive at Krishna’s doorstep, looking for Vermaji to help them out, unaware of his demise. Thankfully, she allows them to stay a few nights before they make their way across the border into Nepal.

If the brief was to set up a three-pronged duel with each character inhabiting a rabid dog-eat-dog quest of their own, the triumvirate of Abhishek Chaubey, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Sabrina Dhawan (of Monsoon Wedding fame) hardly set a foot wrong. In our Kachori Western, the desi milieu fuses with stock characters from a “western Western”, slathered with a dose of noir-like treatment of its characters and their hidden motivations. Egos clash, there are shootouts and cylinder blasts, but the real gun battle is the pining over love.

Ishqiya

Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya is a film that can best be described as a kachori western served with noir ki chutney.

Image Credit: VB Pictures/ Shemaroo Entertainment

Bollywood’s closest attempt at a Western was undoubtedly Sholay. What the most famous Hindi film, like any good Western like Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars, does at the outset is that it establishes the world of the characters almost immediately. The characters are broad archetypes, such as the protagonist (Thakur), the villain (Gabbar), and the flawed outsider-heroes who are entrusted with dealing with the dangers that surround the village.

Back in Gorakhpur, Krishna might come across as Radha (Jaya Bachchan) while Khaalu-Babban are more deprived versions of Jai-Veeru. Khaalujaan finds himself attracted to the damsel in distress, conjuring feelings for her that make you root for the old thief trying to redeem himself through love. But it is when the damsel in distress reveals herself as the noir-ish femme fatale, that the hierarchy of power among the three is drastically overturned. Radha becomes the new Thakur. She calls the shots and the men must obey or perish. This subversion of the Western is the backbone of the Kachori Western.

Yet, Ishqiya manages to retain the intensity of a Western through poignancy in dialogue, a classic trope of the Western that sets the men apart from the boys. Lines like “aajkal burkhe mein hain ki nange” (a slang referring to people serving jail time) and “Sheikh apni apni dekh” (which becomes central to the climax) establish the rustic milieu just like the barren landscapes define a Western. Sometimes, the dialogue is the marker for shift in character. As Khaalu goes from being an old romantic to a disillusioned bitter lover, his words lose the “tehzeeb” with which he’d once presented himself to Krishna. Krishna, meanwhile, goes from the soft-spoken object of gaze to the “chutiyam sulphate”-uttering badass.

The most enduring archetype of the Western, the outsider hero, is manifest in Babban and Khaalu: The two are perpetually in a world that is slightly alien to them.

But the most enduring archetype of the Western, the outsider hero, is manifest in Babban and Khaalu: The two are perpetually in a world that is slightly alien to them. These Muslim outsiders are witness to the Hindu caste war between the Thakurs and the lower castes, in a world that they cannot quite fathom. It leads Babban to exclaim at one point, “Humare yahan toh Shia Sunni hote hain; yahan toh Thakur-Yadav sabne apni sena daal rakhi hai.” Every step they take is riddled with caution and eyed with suspicion.

The way Ishqiya’s narrative meanders through form and aesthetic (jumping wagons from Western, to noir, to romance) like the vagabond chronicler Ibn Batuta it invokes at the beginning, is perhaps the film’s overarching theme of constant metamorphosis and change. The two men manage to rescue Krishna, and this time all three of them walk into the sunset after Gabbar (Verma) dies. Mushtaq points his sniper at the trio but doesn’t pull the trigger only so that the games can continue. Such an end, is suited to a Yojimbo, where the samurai moves on after the story to another village and another story. Our trio also carries on, but we know all’s never going to be well with them.

This Kachori Western culminates on a high, leaving you gasping for more of these finely crafted characters. It’s similar to Khaalu’s description of a brand of rum unique to their hometown: “Pehle peg mein shaadi ka ghoda, dusre mein daaku ka, aur teesre mein race ka ghoda.” The spell that they cast, as the third act grinds to a halt, is just like that intoxication.

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