Love-crossed: (from left) Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah in Ishqiya.

There are three kinds of love in Ishqiya, which is produced by Vishal Bhardwaj and directed by Abhishek Chaubey, his assistant for many years. The kind that kills, the kind fuelled by physical desire, and the kind of ishq that vintage Hindi films celebrate; and all three kinds are hurtful.

With much of it set in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, the film contains a universe familiar to those who have watched Bhardwaj’s films. The rot, the violence, the profanities and the goons abound in Ishqiya too, and in this seamy, amoral universe, there are the tides and troughs of love, poignant moments, quirky hilarity, redemption, guilt and much entertainment for the audience.

Obviously, Chaubey also understands this milieu well. One of the best things about Ishqiya is its dialogues, which lift the film to a great extent—and they are written by Bhardwaj himself. Bhardwaj has also co-written the screenplay with Chaubey and Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding), and also scored the film’s music.

Chaubey is working with three great actors in lead roles: Naseeruddin Shah, an actor seasoned in and honed by cinema of all kinds; Arshad Warsi, who is effortless in comic roles, and Vidya Balan, who has shown great promise in the past as an actor who can balance histrionics and restraint.

The story is a black comedy about two sloppy, decadent runaway goons who have escaped the wrath of their ganglord, and their entanglement in another plot involving, in varying degrees, illegal arms trafficking, extortion, lust and naxalism. The goons, played by Warsi (Babban) and Shah (Iftekhar/Khalajaan), are pawns for Krishna (Balan) , the wily, sensuous, hardened wife of an arms dealer and gangster, in pursuit of revenge and reconciliation.

It is a narrative with many strands that is meant to depict the gun-driven bedlam of small-town Uttar Pradesh. Chaubey’s treatment of Gorakhpur, a town where new wealth is exhibited garishly, and where extortionists and a newly formed “sena" (army) of Naxals exploit, lends the setting its vibrant, gritty minutiae. Cinematographer Mohana Krishna’s lens picks up the right details.

But the soul of Ishqiya is supposed to be the love—much of it abused and scarred. A woman who uses guns and wiles to avenge betrayed love; two itinerant, foul-mouthed but humane goons who are both in love with her; and a hilarious sub-plot of the marital and adulterous love of a stupid rich man who owns a steel factory. What kind of love will finally win, and at what cost? The writers leave it largely ambiguous.

The story itself is thin. It begins by sketching out a large canvas of caste politics and crime, but in the course of its 2-hour run, that canvas gets completely diluted. The romance and desire depend on a few scenes to develop; so ultimately, Ishqiya’s story is neither about societal turbulence nor about man’s inner turmoil, although it is intended to straddle the middle ground where both meet. But ultimately, the lack of focus becomes glaringly obvious.

You should watch Ishqiya for its crackling wit, dialogues and some extremely well-executed scenes carried off by fine performances. Shah is on fire, and Iftikhar ?is testimony to the brilliance this actor can produce, given a meaty lead role. Warsi’s comic timing is perfect. He also gets the film’s best lines and is the writers’ voice.

The three writers should be applauded for scripting Balan’s role. She’s a woman hurt in love, hardened by a male-dominated society where guns rule and women are enslaved by men, but who is still in control. Krishna is a village woman who uses her sensuality to get what she wants. In some scenes, Balan gets carried away by the overt sensuality and foxiness of her character, but overall she is in character throughout, making us both like and hate Krishna.

In Ishqiya, a sassy film by a bright new director, the parts are more interesting than their sum. It is spirited, funny and not to be missed


Moral of the story: Bachchan has little screen time in Rann, but gets to pontificate for 15 minutes on the media towards the end.

I went to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s latest, Rann, with some trepidation. Over the years, we have watched Varma slide even more, making some horrifyingly mindless flicks. But that was the lesser reason for my trepidation; I’ll always go for an RGV film with hope because we know what he is capable of—Satya and Company are Hindi cinema’s best gangster films ever. Anyway, the real concern was that because Rann is a film about a profession and the inside story of how it works, the possibility of it being laden with generalizations and stereotypes was immense. Rann is about the Indian broadcast media—the battle for TRPs and the nexus of politicians and industrialists that is supposed to be running media conglomerates in India.

Varma’s portrayal of the media is that of e4a manipulative monster, with unbridled greed for money. News is not reported, but created; sound bites are plucked out of context to grab attention; breaking news is fabricated; the media can make and break governments—these are truisms as old as TV news itself. Every sensible TV news consumer is aware of the possibilities. Varma’s challenge was in the story, the characters, and how effectively he reiterates these truisms.

Amitabh Bachchan is Vijay Harshvardhan Malik, a broadcast news baron who, along with his son Jai Malik (Sudeep), runs India 24x7. His son-in-law (Rajat Kapoor) is an industrialist who is a stooge of a right-wing politician (Paresh Rawal) aspiring to be the next prime minister. There are some predictable characters in this newsroom: a windbag of a reporter, a foolproof TRP-pusher (Rajpal Yadav) whose histrionics are more important than what he says, a duplicitous news editor who, for some inexplicable reason, is also the company’s COO (Suchitra Krishnamoorty), a bimbo who is the girlfriend of the media empire’s scion (Neetu Chandra); a weepy-eyed, conscientious reporter (Riteish Deshmukh) who pursues the truth that lies beneath all the breaking news and who gives up journalism out of disillusionment, but gets the most incredulous reward at the end.

It is simplistic and harsh to say that all news is fiction; that all media is puppet to politicians and industrialists. But Rann is an important film about the media, the opinion makers. The central message of the film, which is that the media should be driven not by profit, but by the desire to inform the public about what’s true and important, comes not from a careless urge to repudiate or demonize the media, but from a belief in the media’s possibilities.

The best thing about Rann is that its maker has judgement. He takes a stand. There have been films about other professions that skim over the real issues and attempt to paint its milieu, its workings and underpinnings with some broad strokes. Varma’s subjectivity, although he doesn’t take any earth-shattering stands, is forceful and passionate.

That’s just about what is good about Rann. The story is about one politician, and how he uses Malik’s son to change opinions about his opponent. Will the truth finally come out? Will the disillusioned reporter regain faith?

Bachchan gets little time on screen. Malik’s son drives most of the plot for the sake of Varma’s express intention—to reveal “the game". Bachchan gets about 15 minutes of screen time towards the end, pontificating on what the media should be. He is nowhere close to what news anchors are—in tears, hands folded, impassioned, the dramatic moral voice.

In film technique, Varma has begun to depend heavily on gimmicks. As in his earlier films, most blatantly in his horror films, he overuses background sound in Rann to create a sense of suspense which is entirely out of place in the story. The background sound (some of it is chants of Vande Mataram and towards the end, there’s a loud rendition of a Sanskrit chant from the Bhagvad Gita) is jarring, and annoying to the viewer. The dialogues are hyperbolic, and the acting, for the most part, is over-the-top.

Rann would have worked far better with some subtlety, more attention to detail and a less overpowering moral voice.

Ishqiya and Rann released in theatres on Friday.