What made Ishqiya interesting was the relationship between its leads— Iftikhar or Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi). These two are not only relatives, but also partners-in-crime, but there’s something significant that sets them apart: their age. And, while the characters’ real ages were not revealed in the film, we could have safely assumed both Warsi and Shah were playing themselves, agewise. The former in his 60s, the latter in his 40s— although Babban’s sudden burst of energy would have often made you believe he’s younger than that. And, such a substantial difference in the age manifested itself in their relationship with women, crime, and how they came to terms with the quandary they found themselves in. But, what made the film sparkle was when they went beyond their age to come closer— scenes were Iftikhar was more frivolous than Babban, and, Babban more solemn than Iftikhar.
We don’t see any perceptible change in the characters or in their relationship in Dedh Ishqiya too. This film, like its predecessor, is also about two absconding goons who bump into someone they can’t help falling for. It’s an immediately arresting situation because by its conventional definition, failing in love makes you altruistic—you forego your self—while a goon has to be inherently selfish in order to survive and thrive. Both Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya explore this conflict quite nicely: what do you do when you find yourself changing, but when you know the change is detrimental to you?
What sets Dedh Ishqiya apart from Ishqiya is the female character(s). The former had one; the latter has two. Here, the two leads are not fighting with each other for love. This ebbs a lot of delightful tension, which was largely responsible for making Ishqiya work. In Dedh Ishqiya, Chaubey devotes a considerable amount of time exploring the relationship between Para Begam (Madhuri Dixit) and Iftikhar. Both of them can only recount episodes of unrequited love, are similarly broken, and Chaubey has all the right tools at his disposal to bring them closer— both the characters are mature and they wax eloquent in chaste, lyrical Urdu couplets; things that easily lend gravitas to a relationship. But, even with all the embellishment present, their relationship feels tepid. It’s worrying because their relationship informs a major part of the narrative. And, while the performances are quite solid—both Dixit’s and Shah’s—you miss a certain sensual testiness that Balan so effortlessly brought to her role in Ishqiya.
However, what Chaubey and Bhardwaj (both of them have collaborated on the screenplay) do get right, and get right splendidly, is the comical oddity of the lives of these small-town ruffians. There’s not only much to laugh about in such scenes, but via those comedic sequences, both Chaubey and Bhardwaj make their characters full-fleshed, clothe them with humanity. So, throughout its running time, Dedh Ishqiya consists of two films— one, which revels in the idiosyncrasies of its characters and does quite a fitting job of it, and the other tries to build a poignant, contemplative mood but despite everything in place, the chemistry doesn’t quite materialize or underline the characters the way it should. But, more importantly, those scenes are not sloppily executed, so you feel dissatisfied—or rather insensate—instead of feeling disappointed.
When the movie changes its tone in the second half, it still manages to hold your interest—because it’s consistently well made and smartly written—but even in a newer territory, the film doesn’t quite manage to travel, never becomes as rich and textured as a film like this could. There’s only as much pleasure a heartland kidnapping plot point—and other similar plot points present in Ishqiya as well—can provide. Although, what really struck me, albeit briefly, was how close the two women were in the film, physically. In one scene, Muniya (Huma Qureshi) caresses Begam’s shoulder and the camera concentrates on Muniya’s fingers in the act, and later, when the two of them laugh raucously, and we see their shadows meld into each other. But, the film doesn’t delve into this interesting aside any further, and it remains just that: an aside. Which is why Dedh Ishqiya doesn’t manage to carry the dialogue forward. Its motifs, concerns, and fixations are almost the same as Ishqiya’s. That doesn’t make it bad, in fact far from it; it easily comes across as assured and intelligent, even rip-roaring when it really gets going. But, it does feel superfluous. That Dedh doesn’t quite justify its place.