Naseeruddin Shah and Madhuri Dixit come together to create a mature magic.

Ahhh, after so long, a mainstream Hindi film that you can simply luxuriate in. That makes you want to lean back languidly and let the cinematic joy wash over you. That delights the senses, sweeps you along with its beauty and skill and then, snaps you out of your languor as it leads you to its climax. It’s a movie you wish just wouldn’t end.

Dedh Ishqiya is a film with so many charms that you don’t know where to begin. There’s Abhishek Chaubey’s magnificent direction, of course. The acting — from the priceless Naseeruddin Shah’s Iftekhar Khalu to the fleeting ministrations of a toothless hakim, each character is deliciously real, so beautifully calibrated and marvellously cast (Honey Trehan’s casting is impeccable.) Vishal Bharadwaj’s clever, funny, subtle, dramatic dialogue. The production design, the screenplay. DOP Satyajit Pande aka Setu’s textured, seductive frames that capture decadence and chicanery with equal flourish. A. Sreekar Prasad’s sharp, creative editing. Bharadwaj’s own music and the marvellous use of a Begum Akhtar thumri. The incomparable Gulzar saab’s lyrics. A dance choreographed by Pandit Birju Maharaj. What a joy it is when all strands in a film are woven together so seamlessly that praising one leads to the other. What a glorious meeting of minds and masters this film is.

It all adds up to a more-than-worthy sequel to Ishqiya, itself one of the cleverest films in recent times. What is especially pleasurable about both is their brand of original Indian humour, not some Indianised version of Hollywood tropes. It’s the kind of humour we saw in Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai movies or little gems like Phas Gaye Re Obama. The briefest glance, the casual phrase, they’re used so skilfully. Just one word — “Iftikhar” — delivered throatily by Madhuri Dixit and imitated later, has more wit than the entire length of most of our alleged comedies.

Besides, there are so many unexpected pleasures. Consider: There’s a town called Mahmudabad. Wherein is held a poetry competition that is a swayamvar to choose a husband for the widowed Begum Para. Whose decaying haveli is now filled with adaabs, irshaads and Urdu bon mots. And who, clad in robes and jewels, presides over this literary joust. So what do you get? Conmen, political goons and a bellyful of laughs.

Indeed, it is this seamless blending of two worlds — a soft-lit, decaying and delusional feudalism on one hand, and the crassly contemporary hinterland on the other — that provides the edge.

This is writing that demands exceptional actors. And Dedh Ishqiya has a haveli-ful of them. Naseeruddin Shah, grey and craggy-faced, is in pitch-perfect form. Arshad Warsi is a worthy foil with his rough-edged cockiness. Madhuri Dixit’s every gesture holds within it the musty fragrance of a long-faded world. At a lived-in, languorous, luminous 46, she can still transport you to another realm as Begum Para. Huma Qureshi, young and luscious, is as mysterious as her mistress the Begum. And Vijay Raaz, ever the scene-stealer, does it again. His thug persona is getting predictable perhaps, but when he does it so well, who’s going to complain? Manoj Pahwa as a rotund poet and Pakistani actor Salman Shahid as a caustic gangster have but a few scenes, but you’re not likely to forget them.

So much to enjoy and admire. You could find some faults in the movie, but I, for one, am more than happy to overlook them. Precisely because this is a movie made without an obvious eye on the box-office, one wishes it success at the b-o. At press time, it had not even recovered its costs. That it’s done far less business than the pop concoction Yaariyan is particularly galling.

But the reality is that this kind of slow-paced, well-crafted film is not everyone’s idea of an evening at the movies. In the trade parlance’s stock phrase, Dedh Ishqiya is a film for ‘mature audiences’.

Even the controversies over the film’s premiere in Lucknow, the entertainment tax waiver granted by Akhilesh Singh Yadav’s government and the Saifai Mahotsav have not helped much. Should Madhuri, Salman Khan, Alia Bhatt and others have danced at Saifai, given public anger over the condition of the Muzaffarnagar riot victims? The short, wise answer would be ‘No’, of course. While the accusations of dancing in a “den of debauchery”, as one channel insisted on calling the Saifai fest, are plain manipulative, stars cannot hide behind claims of ignorance either. That three young stars — Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra — could not even name the President of India on Karan Johar’s chat show is not particularly surprising. But Alia’s father, Mahesh Bhatt, is one of the most informed in the industry. So is Salman’s father, Salim Khan. Surely the parents could have injected a word of caution in dealing with the Yadavs, Akhilesh and Mulayam? Mahesh Bhatt acknowledged that and apologised, but much to the ire of Salman Khan. I did it to raise funds for charity, says the Khan. Madhuri chipped in with a tweet: ‘As artists and celebrities, we believe in using our reach to help others through drawing attention to the needs of the day.’ (sic). Oh well, now you know why Bollywood films are so confused.

(This article was published on January 16, 2014)
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