ISHQIYA.  Director: Abhishek Choubey. Players: Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Vidya Balan. Music: Vishal Bhardwaj. Theatrical release: Shemaroo Entertainment and Vishal Bhardwaj pictures.

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The first few scenes of Ishqiya set the tone so effortlessly that from then on the movie is less a cinematic experience and more a roller-coaster ride with the uncle-nephew crook team of Khalujaan(Shah) and Babban (Warsi) into the very heart of U.P. badlands.

After the unforgettable joi de vivre of “Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge” from the legendary Sholay, we finally have the equally roadworthy and zany “Ibn-e-batoota” as the two crooks sing their way to Gorakhpur, in search of shelter.

The old reprobates wind up at wily widow Krishna’s (Balan) house. Unlikely love blossoms in the tough hearts of both uncle and nephew. While the uncle goes romantic and dewy-eyed hearing Krishna sing, the nephew’s love is more about testosterone and unabashed lust.

Krishna, playing her cards deftly, strings both along. She hatches a wicked, seemingly fool-proof plan, pronounced “plane” by Warsi, to earn quick money for the three of them.

But, as they say, the best laid “planes” of mice and men ….

The film moves at a fast pace, thanks to the taut direction and crisp editing. The sharp twists keep the viewer glued to place despite the fact that the ending feels rushed and contrived.

Ishqiya, despite being directed by debutant director Abhishek Chaubey, carries all the hallmarks of a Bhardwaj movie (Bhardwaj co-wrote the script)—the realistic settings, the de-glamorized characters speaking in rustic patois. The art direction takes the film to the next level. The actual locales, the painstaking attention to details (Balan’s artlessly mismatched cholis, plastic jars of all shapes and sizes in her kitchen), the ambience, the crowds jostling in the intercity bus, the landscape, the crudeness of the language—everything is a slice of life.

Key scenes are interspersed with well-remembered and cunningly chosen old Hindi film songs that add an extra dimension to the movie; like the scene where Balan hums the Lata oldie, “Tumhe dekhti hoon toh lagta hai …”  to which Shah remarks, “Tumhare liye,” apparently telling her the name of the film the song is from, but implying something more.

Balan emerges as a force to reckon with, with yet another marvelous portrayal after her single-mother of Paa. The coy Parineeta gives way to the earthy Krishna, a woman who wields a gun as well as she makes her sinuous way into the hearts of the two toughies. Warsi lives the role of Babban, the impulsive, sly, skirt-chaser who is touchy enough to beat his uncle to pulp when he bad mouths his mother. He convincingly makes us forget Circuit from the Munnabhai movies.

Shah breathes life into the older-crook who takes to coloring his beard when he falls for the pretty widow. The tiny nuances of his performance and the trademark pitch of his voice make his Khalujaan endearing and unforgettable. Lending them support is a talented ensemble cast.

The camera work is superb as cinematographer Mohana Krishna captures the backwaters of Eastern U.P. with all its laid-back charm. The wonderful cinematography takes in everything, from the dusty streets to the posters on the walls. This is the great unwashed India.

The review won’t be complete without the mention of the music. The duo of Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar has once again created chartbusters like the peppy “Ibn-e-batoota”, sung zestily by Sukhwinder and Mika, and the soulful “Dil to Bachcha Hai” by Rahat Fateh Ali khan.

If you love roller-coasters, don’t miss this movie.

Entertainment Quotient (EQ): A

Madhumita Gupta is a freelance writer and teacher.

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