Ah, for the pleasures of decadence! They can come embellished with the discreet charms of poetry and nostalgia, saved from sentimentality by an edgy dose of wicked wit and subversive twists. A lot like Dedh Ishqiya, which is penned with humour that is robust and subtle by turns and delivered with panache by the tested duo Abhishek Chaubey and Vishal Bharadwaj. They follow up the promise of Ishqiya and dress up the rustic raunch of the first film with the lingering grace of nawabi culture (adab is a more resonant Urdu word) and courtly courtesies that spell old world charm.
Poetry and profanity – accessible, yet worded with seeming decorousness and delicious subversion – make for a winning combination. The narrative spins out the next misadventure of the uncle-nephew duo, of a laidback Iftikhar Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) and bumbling Babban (Arshad Warsi), at the calibrated pace of caper gone wrong. Dedh Ishqiya daringly pulls off the pairing of opposites with the practised ease of a wily magician, who still has something up his capacious sleeve.
The subtext is there for the initiated to catch on – just hints and nothing overtly subversive to rock the commercial boat. Chaubey’s direction juxtaposes two polars of the mating game: enchanted men of varying ages and poetic abilities wooing the mysterious Begum Para (who challenges her suitors to win her with sheroshairi) against the bonding between the exquisitely aristocratic Begum (Madhuri Dixit-Nene) and her saucily outspoken companion Muniya (Huma Qureshi). Those familiar with Urdu literature can catch echoes of Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s classic tale of lesbian love (the author was summoned to court on charges of obscenity in the 1940s.) The two strands are woven together with evocative grace and sharp wit.
The difference between transgression and subversion is key to the tone of comedy. Dedh Ishqiya uses the enchantments of grandeur recollected at leisure, transporting the fabled splendours of Lucknow’s courtly culture to a dusty mansion in Mahmudabad to lure us into a world where even subversion is couched in the artful coquetry of a kathak dancer’s seductive glances and gestures that summon up soulful sighs from yearning suitors. Instead of the pastel prettiness of the Muslim social, we have cavernous halls and empty coffers, the gloom of approaching decay temporarily kept at bay by the hopeful suitors collected at the behest of the widowed Begum, who is to choose the next nawab – after they pass her test of wooing her with poetry at the annual Jashn where men sport karakul caps and impeccably tailored sherwanis and the Begum makes a royal entry, a sequinned chiffon dupatta demurely draped over coiffed hair adorned with an antique jhoomar.
Foremost among the suitors is Khalu, who pretends to be a gracious Nawab, able to spout elegant, heartfelt poetry on demand and the arrogant local MLA Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), who kidnaps a poet to keep him supplied with verses. Khalu and Babban have been dispatched by their Bhopal-based boss (an impressive cameo by the Pakistani actor Salman Shahid, who transforms poker-faced impassivity into pure menace) to steal a necklace worth Rs 50 lakh from a jeweller. They pull it off but, as expected, Khalu and the necklace are separated from Babban. Threatened with emasculation by the big boss (the phrase used is to have a gilli cut off!), Babban tracks Khalu Jaan, masquerading creditably as born-to-the-manor Nawab of Chandpur, and gets drawn into the elaborate scheme of winning Begum Para’s hand. Unlike Ishqiya, where they both vied for the favours of the comely widow Krishna, Babban has his own amorous game to chase. Muniya is not an easy conquest. She may have sex with him, but that doesn’t mean Babban has bought her or her loyalty.
Only Vishal Bharadwaj can write with such elaborate affection about the seven stages of love, like Shakespeare’s seven stages of man. A doddering old hakim enunciates these seven stages as cure for Khalu’s trembling hands. The irony is delicious and the whole sequence is repeated to underline it. It is an education into the intricate evolution of emotion worthy of incorporating into a modern, inclusive version of Kama Sutra. Dilkashi (attraction) progresses to uns (infatuation), then fructifies into ishq (love), sublimates to aqeedat (reverence), soars to ibaadat (worship), transforms to junoon (obsession) and finally dissolves into maut (death). Khalu experiences the nuanced emotions like a connoisseur. He remembers Begum Para’s performance years earlier in Bhopal where Birju Maharaj had choreographed her thumri. No clichéd flashbacks for Chaubey. Instead, we see a besotted Khalu gazing entranced at Begum Para twirling gracefully in her room, as the dance takes him from one closed door with its age-spotted glass panes to another. We seem him enthralled by the poetry of dance, and the camera performs a discreet dance of its own, contrasting the precise clarity and subtle movements of Madhuri with Shah’s intense gaze behind the cloudy glass. A moment of pure epiphany.
The moment compensates for what is left unsaid. We can also forgive the lack of finesse at the climax. Begum Para arranges for her own kidnapping so that she can live on her own terms without having to marry any of her suitors. It has to go awry as expected, with everyone – the big boss from Bhopal, cops, Jaan Mohammad’s goons, the two couples together in a temporary alliance – gathered at the implausibly empty station and a goods train providing both shelter and ambush vantage points. The entire segment calls for controlled chaos. What we get is chaos without much control, but we can live with it. The two women escape with the necklace bestowed on the Begum by a smitten Khalu. The con men are marched off by their boss, and the women with their young students dance to Hamari Atariya Pe in Rekha Bharadwaj’s distinctly seductive voice.
This is truly Madhuri Dixit Nene’s comeback film, in which she creates a mystique of her own – a challenging aristocratic aloofness that promises elusive warmth to the lucky winner. She spells seduction with a raised eyebrow and a smile to die for. Huma Qureshi is all spunk and seduction, the seeming decorousness a cover for a clever mind. Vijay Raaz is suitably demented and ArshadWarsi comically crass, with a great sense of timing. It is wonderful to see and hear Naseeruddin Shah. His voice skims seamlessly over emotions, be it amusement dripping with sarcasm or disarming gentleness under which so many feelings ripple and ricochet.
The subtitling of the film for an Indian audience left me ambivalent. The compulsion to read the titles even when one knows the language is a distraction. But, then again, how many people follow the nuances of Urdu to understand and appreciate the seven stages of love? More so, when the likes of Dhinka Chika and Lungi Dance are big hits? Vishal Bharadwaj’s writing is a nudge towards civilised use of language, not in a purist’s sense, but in a reclamation of lost heritage at a time when hybrid lingo bastardises our speech. Even as we are being initiated into the difference between aqueedat and ibaadat, Babban taunts Muniya for not having an iPhone 5. The two can inhabit the same time and space.