Updated on February 11, 2022

Love. I’m not sure about real life, but it’s the thing that makes most movies go round. No matter what the genre is, from horror to high drama, there’s always a place for love in Indian cinema. And we have so many words for it; pyaar, prem, mohobbat, and that most recurring cinematic version of love, the heady first-flush cocktail of lust & wonder known as ishq.

Ishqiya is all about ishq in its myriad forms. It’s the ishq of riches that makes Ifthikar (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew Babban (Arshad Warsi) steal from their gangster boss. It’s ishq that makes Krishna (Vidya Balan) urge her husband to give up a life of crime, only to see him stolen from her in a fiery accident. It’s ishq that the two men on the run find when they come to the widow’s door seeking her husband, and ishq that makes them do the deadly things that follow.

I will admit to being wary of watching Ishqiya when I first saw its trailer with Kaminey last year. While I place its leads among those actors I like, more often than not they’re hamming it up or wasted in dire melodramas. Not so this time, thankfully. Ishqiya is a sumptuous treat for everyone who’s ever wished that Vidya Balan would sink her teeth into something with, well, teeth! It’s for all of us who saw Arshad Warsi in Munnabhai M.B.B.S. and knew that his talent could be put to good use not just in comedies. And it is, at long last, a movie for Naseeruddin Shah fans that remember him for being Hero Hiralal, and Vinod Chopra in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, and not the crazed villain from, er, everything.

The lead trio of Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya - Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi - in scenes from the film

the dialogue is a star in its own right

Undoubtedly, this is Vidya Balan’s best film to date. Krishna is the most fleshed-out character in the movie, and though she’s a fairly generic femme fatale, Balan infuses her with an innocence and intelligence that keeps you guessing as to the widow’s true intentions. It’s a subtle performance that allows the actress to finally make good on the promise she’s shown since Parineeta.

As characters, the leading men fare less well. Neither the old-world romantic Ifthikhar — mostly referred to by the endearment Khalujaan — nor the lustful barbarian Babban are defined much beyond their simple archetypes, and it is due to the sheer talent of their actors and the excellence of the dialogue that they become memorable.

If you’ve ever watched more than two noir thrillers or caper movies, then you can probably guess what the rest of the plot of Ishqiya is by now. Put bluntly, the movie’s greatest failing is both that its plot is very by-the-numbers, and that it tries to weave in one too many threads by the time the climax comes around. And when that climax does arrive, the momentum built up suddenly unravels in a messy, improbable and frustratingly filmi way. The result is that the plot often gets in the way of Ishqiya‘s charming performances and dialogue — its real highlight.

Credited to producer Vishal Bhardwaj, the dialogue is a star in its own right. By turns lyrical and coarse, irreverent and romantic, it’s a pleasure to hear the peculiar patois of Gorakhpur, mixing shudh Hindi & Urdu with colourful local phrases. It even works in a usually bleep-worthy piece of profanity by housing it in a cute chemical formula.

And ‘cute’ can also unfortunately be used to describe a lot of the dialogue, as the movie does suffer from what I like to call Joss Whedon Syndrome; every character is clever or strange, uses similar phrases, and ends up sounding the same — i.e. like the person writing it. It’s not very muscular, but as banter goes it is wildly entertaining. You may be less disenchanted by this than I was.

A poster of Ishqiya, behind the scenes shots with director Abhishek Chaubey and the actor who plays Nandu

And how lovely that it is delivered by woman in a saree and a small town thug

Most Indian movie kisses are cringe-inducing. No matter how talented the star or lauded the director, two Indians making out onscreen always looks uncomfortable. I’m very happy to report that Ishqiya has what is probably the first Hindi film kiss that is properly good. And how lovely that it is delivered by woman in a saree and a small town thug, rather than a gel-haired Bollywood gym darling in shiny pants. In fact throughout the movie there is an undercurrent, a quiet celebration of the raw sensuality of the world beyond Bollywood glamour. The film reminds us that, yes, the real India can be sexy.

There is a certain verisimilitude to Ishqiya‘s world that makes it delightful to watch. It’s undoubtedly cinematic, but not in the over-the-top Bollywood way we have come to know and love. Anyone who has travelled outside a city in India will be instantly familiar with this world, and top marks to cinematographer Mohana Krishna and production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai for bringing it to the screen so well.

Ishqiya is directed by long-time Bhardwaj collaborator Abhishek Chaubey, but it hardly seems like the work of a first-time director. There are a few rough edges — the editing is a bit disjointed, and the aforementioned climax is overegged if not overcooked — but it’s a solid debut.

That the film is produced by Bhardwaj is beyond doubt; his fingerprints are all over it, from its small-town North India setting, motley assortment of rogues (seriously, there’s not a ‘normal’ or ‘good’ one among the entire dramatis personae), to his signature lyrical dialogue. But Chaubey’s certainly asserts himself as a strong new voice in Hindi cinema, with an eye for detail and wit that is most welcome.

Ishqiya is not quite the marvel of cinematic delights that one wishes it was. So infrequently does a Hindi film come along that shows promise of being actually good, that perhaps an inordinate amount of expectation is placed upon any that do. If you can ignore the over-eagerness of the plot, and the missteps in pace, you will come away richly rewarded with what is, at the end of the day, good, old-fashion pulp fiction, with a uniquely Indian twist.