In recent years, there have been a number of Bollywood films to return to the "Hindi heartland," not necessarily in search of a "social" film seeking to make a point about inter-caste violence or some such issue, but as part of a kind of backlash against the addled juvenilia and sentimentality of nearly two decades of Hindi films, a large number of them set amidst frolic in foreign locations (often, in malls, hotels, and other generic foreign locations, a reminder that what these films imagined was the (triumphal inhabiting of the) foreign -- often laced with insularity, if not outright xenophobia -- as symbolic marker of affluence). Some of these mofussil-centric films -- Baabarr (2009), for instance -- have been unfortunately shallow; others, such as Ishqiya (2010), far more interesting; but all have to negotiate the tension between the desire of their filmmakers (many of whom are from India's smaller cities: Abhishek Chaubey, the director of Ishqiya, is from Gorakhpur; Habib Faisal, from Bhopal) to represent worlds that all too often are overlooked in Bollywood's universe of representation (in the latter, to be "ethnic," certainly cheerful and ethnic, is all too often to be Punjabi); and the metropolitan audience's predilection to locating its own other in the mofussils "out there" -- violent and blood-strewn, and at once backward and suffering from a dysfunction of democracy itself (imagined as a kind of ghundaa raj from which the metropolitan audience has itself seceded). The line, that is to say, between filming untold stories and pandering is thin indeed.
It is a line Habib Faisal's Ishaqzaade must also straddle, but does so with great aplomb, with perhaps the least self-conscious portrayal of the U.P. badlands I have seen in years, especially in its language, with Faisal himself writing the piquant and naturalistic dialogs. Faisal is able to achieve this not just because he seems to know this world, but because he does not judge: while the frisson of the metropolitan gaze is never completely absent, the viewer is not meant to understand the casual misogyny, the liberal use of words like "kaafir," as evidence of how far "behind" the major metros India's badlands are, nor as markers of whether a particular character is "good" or "bad"; rather -- and this is somewhat disconcerting -- Faisal presents his milieu (a town called Almore) with a shrug, as it were. That is to say, unlike in far too many films set in the heartland, people in Faisal's Almore aren't simply performing their demographic background, they are irredeemably themselves -- thus the spunky firebrand Zoya (Parineeti Chopra) isn't foul-mouthed and trigger-happy because she's from Almore; she's explicitly depicted as unconventional, certainly (like all of us) a product of a particular background, but that inheritance arranged in a singular way, one that isn't pre-destined. Faisal is neither trying to further a project by means of his setting, about a backward other who needs to be civilized; nor is his the orientalist gaze that allows the other only culture and locale, no agency. In short, Faisal's world is driven by character, not anthropological destiny (a point at least some of the film's reviewers seem to have missed).
The picture Faisal paints is vivid indeed, of a town riven by political rivalry between the Chauhans and the Qureshis, and brought to a boil because of an impending election. Each clan is led by a patriarch, enthusiastically served by children and even grand-children. In the case of the Qureshis, no-one is more enthusiastic in the service of the cause of family advancement and political power than the daughter Zoya. Faisal tells you all you really need to know about her in her first scene as an adult, when we find her exchanging gold jewelry for a gun (and haggling over the price to boot); no wallflower, this one (the name is a clue, pointing to Pakistani TV actress Marina Khan's famous turns in Hasina Moin's mini-series from the 1980s; the fascination for Moin's work lingers in Yashraj film-makers not named Chopra -- apart from the obvious channels of influence running both ways between the director of Silsila and the Pakistani screenwriter, Yashraj hired Moin to co-write the dialog of Veer-Zaara (2004) -- and Ishqzaade's Zoya channels the spunky Marina Khan from over two decades ago, even if her environs are vastly different from the manicured lawns of Karachi's posher sets). Zoya isn't the first of the leads to be introduced, however: Chauhan thug Parmi (Arjun Kapoor), very much the dis-favored one of the patriarch's grandsons (his mother's sin is having survived her young husband, thereby calling into question the clan's honor), has already been marauding across the screen, displaying the sort of viciousness and braggadocio that make him a much less interesting -- because one-dimensional -- character than the Zoya he is destined to fall in love with. The Romeo-and-Juliet course of events is entirely predictable, but the film makes it seem relatively fresh -- until (ironically) the unforeseen twist that heralds the interval and a somewhat sub-par second half, where Faisal seems to be less focused, the film morphing into a Hindu-Muslim love story (punctuated by a few too many scenes of gangs of men running around unable to shoot straight, and culminating in a plea for tolerance where inter-community romances are concerned), rather than the odd love story promised by the first half. I shouldn't be too harsh though, given that Faisal is getting better as a director: his second film is more ambitious, and, on balance, better than Do Dooni Char (2010), Faisal's directorial debut about a middle-class Delhi Punjabi family buffeted by the rampant materialism around them; and even if both films began better than they ended, I'd love to see what he comes up with next.
Cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi deserves no small measure of the credit for Ishaqzaade, with a number of memorable shots, ranging from the stylish -- the opening scene includes a shot from a low vantage point between railtrack and train -- to the unobtrusively real -- when Parmi and his buddies finally get a diesel-powered generator to start, Chaturvedi makes sure we can see the fumes rising around the grinning young man. Even sequences of the sort we've seen many times before, such as a couple of chase sequences through Almore's narrow alleys, are rescued both by the charm of the locale and Chaturvedi's sure eye, that knows the scenes' claustrophobic urban backdrops are huge assets. The influence of Mani Ratnam's and Vishal Bhardwaj's cinematographers hangs heavy over Chaturvedi's outdoor shots, but that's hardly a bad thing. Amit Trivedi's energetic soundtrack works well with the film, although "Pareshaan," alternating between delicate and rock, is the only memorable song; Trivedi and Faisal do get points for ensuring the item numbers "Hua Chokra Jawaan" and "Jhalla Waala" will never be mistaken for other songs of its ilk this year, an achievement given they're a dime a dozen these days (less felicitous is the video for "Jhalla Waala," which contains one of the film's few glaring false notes: it beggars belief that the Qureshis would let their daughter dance with a prostitute, at a party where her brothers, father, and prospective groom were all ogling the naatch-girl no less).
The cast is uniformly competent, with the women the most memorable: the actresses who play Zoya's and Parmi's mothers stand out, the former for her understated naturalism, the latter for her screen presence and timing -- alas, I do not know their names, and depressingly enough, even the list of cast members on Yashraj's website stops at the lead pair. Anil Rastogi seems born to the part of the elder Chauhan, a perfect foil to the more refined Aftab Qureshi (Ratan Singh Rathore) -- all four seemed to relish mouthing the dialogs (with Rastogi perhaps having the most fun of all), a rarity, but also a compliment to Faisal's writing. Arjun Kapoor is enthusiastic and competent, although the shadow of more than one Abhishek Bachchan role hangs heavy on him, mixed with more than a little of the young Anil Kapoor's brashness. He's likable enough, but is easily over-shadowed by Parineeti Chopra, whose (fiery) girl-next-door act, in only her second film, is far and away the film's main pillar. Chopra is a natural actress -- her Urdu diction, a fetish for me, is pretty convincing in Ishaqzaade -- with the sort of wide-mouthed smile that evokes Julia Louis-Dreyfus. More to the point, she isn't obsessed with daintiness like too many Bollywood actresses -- her stance says it all, her legs firmly planted on the ground. This girl could run, or fire a weapon, I remember thinking, and she certainly has the heartiest hugs Bollywood has vouched us in quite a while. Such friendly solidity does have its downside -- as was true of Marina Khan, Chopra shows great comfort with her on-screen lover, without the faintest danger of any sexiness creeping in (indeed, the two love scenes between the pair might be the worst since Amitabh Bachchan bedded the unconscious Meenakshi Seshadri in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) (hey, can't help it if the only way to rescue her from hypothermia is to mount her!) Okay, I'm exaggerating, but the love-making scenes here are almost comically bad) -- but I'm definitely interested in seeing how she develops (I might even be tempted to try and brave her only other film). The fact that that debut film is the seemingly wretched Ladies vs. Rickie Behl (2011), immediately underscores that you could do a lot worse than Ishaqzaade this weekend -- I don't need to have watched Dangerous Ishq (in 3-D, no less) to tell you that.