in talkies

A guest essay by Basanti

Mushtaq Bhai: Any last words?
Babban: How about a joke?
Mushtaq Bhai: Yes, go ahead.
Babban: (nervously) There was once this mullah who had a female parrot. This female parrot had quite a mouth on her, always saying the foulest things. The mullah was at a loss, what to do. He went to his friend, the qazi. The qazi said: look, I have a pair of male parrots, who are both very respectable. They are always singing the praises of Allah. Just have your parrot spend a few days with them, and she’ll be straightened out soon enough. The mullah was very happy by this prospect and handed over his parrot to the qazi. But as soon as the qazi’s parrots took one look at her, they started saying the most vulgar things, suddenly acquiring the most foulest of tongues themselves… the worst insults (galis)! I mean… things I cannot bring myself to repeat…you see, I am much too embarrassed. No, I just can’t say them out loud …I’m really just too shy….Are you sure you want to hear what they said?
Mushtaq Bhai: (chuckles) Of course, yes…
Babban: Ok, but I’m really too embarrassed to say it out loud. Shall I whisper it in your ear?
Mushtaq Bhai: (bending forwards) Yes, do tell…

I finally got around to watching Abhishek Chaubey’s much acclaimed debut, a marvel of a film. Ishqiya follows the interconnected stories of a femme fatale named Krishna (Vidya Balan) having just lost her hardened criminal husband, and two thieves, Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi), on the run. The film’s subtle, yet powerful critique of the Hindu right, its mockery of the rising nouveau rich middle-class; and [relatively] progressive sexual politics, makes it worth a watch. Its landscape is a north India as home through the eyes of its marginalized poor: these happen to include Muslims, (widowed/unattached) women, and lower-castes.

It is to writers’ credit that Ishqiya’s chief Muslim characters—male protagonists aptly portrayed by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi—are for once not the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim familiar duo of Bollywood, chasing their tales in a narrative about terrorism (a la Fiza, Mission Kashmir, Dhoka, Fanaa, etc.) I will spare you the history of the much maligned figure of the Muslim in many a film from Roja (1992) onwards, which has pitted the Indian nationalist hero in opposition to the jihadi terrorist. Many recent films, when featuring Muslims, are structured around a popular narrative about a purported crisis unique to Islam—between good Muslims working for the success of the secular Indian state, and bad Muslims, taking on the state out of adherence to an aggressively blind religious ideology. Suffice to say, there is rarely a film out of Bollywood these days where the Muslim character is not the bearer of religious particularity or difference or presented as political conundrum. So when a film comes along that doesn’t fall into the usual scenario, and does well at the box office, it is noticeable.

Khalujaan and Babban of Ishqiya are all too complex and human: vagrants who drink, whore, and thieve their way through rural north India, a pair of comedic, endearing sinners, having universal problems like lack of money, being bullied, homelessness, and dreams of moving on to greener pastures, trying their best to survive in a dog eat dog world.

The figure of the Muslim in Ishqiya is that of bearing witness and as civilizing persona.

Set in rural UP, the uncle-nephew pair is on the run from rifle toting Mushtaq Bhai whom they’ve crossed yet again. Mushtaq Bhai, though bearing no blood relation to Khalujaan, does share a kin relation: his beloved wife is Khalujaan’s rakhi sister. The thieves have recourse to pleading with their sister—have your husband spare us—via a mobile phone whose ringtone is amusingly, Mera Zohrajabeen. Ishqiya is quite self-referential, if not nostalgic, about cinema songs between the 1950s and 1960s, a period when progressive Urdu poets dominated the song-writing scene in Bombay—a self-referentiality nicely brought to life by Naseeruddin Shah, who represents one of the last Urdu-wallahs of the IPTA generation.

After groveling for their lives in a pit dug as their graves, even the cantankerous Mushtaq Bhai has the valor to listen to their last words: a latifa (joke) about corrupting and corruptible parrots, which turns out to be a ruse for the thieves to escape from their graves. Making off with his money, they decide not to kill Mushtaq Bhai—for the two are often at comedic cross-roads, regarding the question of taking a life.

The theme song in the opening credits is Ibn Batuta, lyrics by Gulzar, and interestingly, a subject of plagarism controversy .

Ibn Batuta sets the tone of the vagabonds’ adventures, referencing the eponymous Muslim traveler, the fourteenth century Moroccan who left behind a detailed rihla (travelogue) of his journeys from North Africa, through Central Asia, and India (where he served in the court of the Delhi sultanate) and to South East Asia. The song’s chorus:

Ibn-Batuta, bagal mein juta, pehne to karta hai jhurrr!
Ibn Batuta, carrying his shoes under his arm, when he wears them, they go jhurr!

You can view the full mast song here. You can read the full translation of the song, the issue of plagiarism and the similarity to Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena‘s Hindi poem here.

From the outset, Ishqiya celebrates and humanizes the mobility of its Muslim characters, a refreshing break from depictions of Muslim travel as an inherently threatening, terrifying, and anti-Indian phenomenon. And not just any mobility—but mobility of the vagrant, criminal kind—where Khalujaan and Babban wax nostalgic about farting freely in their village, and make off with stolen cars. Out of favor with most of their family, friend, and criminal networks, Khalujaan and Babban are in search of temporary shelter. The two travelers rapidly find themselves in the ‘uncivil’ hinterlands: in rural UP, that apparently means being caught in the fray of gun-runners posing as respectable businessmen, and out of control caste wars.

But for anyone who is familiar with Ibn Batuta there appears to be an interesting reversal of a much older theme of ‘cosmopolitan travel’ at work. The Berber Ibn Batuta was a qazi, and a learned scholar, epitomizing medieval North Africa’s Muslim elite. As Ross Dunn has put it: “the Muslim cosmopolite of the fourteenth century [like today’s sophisticated jet-setter] was urbane, well-travelled, and free of the grosser varieties of parochial bigotry…and above all possessed a self-consciousness of the entire Dar-ul-Islam as social reality.” Khalujaan and Babban are far from urbane elites but the invocation of Ibn Batuta stands in for their vagabond cosmopolitanism.

Incidentally, Ibn Batuta called to my mind that other song about vagabond travel and shoes from Indian cinema (Mera Juta Hai Japani) from Kapoor’s Shri 420. In Ishqiya, we have the itinerant stranger heading out of the city and into the village—where the village is anything but the space of tranquility and innocence. The lyrical Ibn Batuta of Khalujaan and Babban’s world brings to mind older narratives of Muslim travel, where the sojourner from the cosmopolitan city of origin, is a commentator on the ‘un-civil’ customs of those whom he comes across: nonetheless he remains part of this larger world. But I digress. Khalujaan and Babban’s cosmopolitanism is expressed in their language: small town Hindi (and Hinglish), the urban slang, and Urdu. Theirs is by no means a provincial world, but they are linked up via mobile phone, and are quite well-traveled, finding shelters and serais from tour guides to train-ticket masters.

The two heroes eventually succeed in securing a place to stay with an old friend, Verma-ji, whose home’s sole occupant now is his wife, the sharp-witted and attractive Krishna. They soon discover that Verma-ji is not coming back. But Krishna has often lived alone: the film’s opening scene portrays her in repose, delighted to see her husband after his long stint away. He brings the gift of a gold chain bearing a pendant of the Taj Mahal, but their reunion is short-lived. Krishna confesses to having gone to the police querying what her husband’s sentence might be if he fesses up, upping the ante in effort to persuade him to surrender; Verma makes a promise to abandon his criminal activities forever. Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion which leaves Krishna widowed.

The name Krishna is appropriate—as Vidya Balan’s character conveys the mischievous, clever, seductive, thieving, and much adored Krishna of folklore. Whereas the romantic and chivalrous Khalujaan quickly becomes enamored by her sweet voice and manner, bonding with her over their mutual love of 1950s film songs, the rough and roving Babban is drawn to her unapologetically open sexuality. When Krishna blithely remarks on the stark difference between uncle and nephew: “zamin-asman ka fark hai (as different as earth and sky)”, Khalujaan corrects her, “No, only as different as Hindu and Muslim.” The statement shores up the shared social space of these characters negotiated by rituals such as rakhi and by film songs.

Within the first few days of their stay, Khalujaan and Babban discover to their horror that not only has Mushtaq Bhai hunted them down yet again, but the stolen money has disappeared. Their arch nemesis gives them one month (until Rakhi day) to return the stolen money, otherwise, they will be buried alive along with Krishna.

Babban immediately accuses Krishna of stealing the money, though she is quick to point out that while Babban was busy in the brothel, the sweeper Nandu was busy cleaning house. It is Nandu the low-caste teenager who had familiarized Babban with the area, promising to fix his gun: “In our village, children learn to use the gun before learning to wipe their butts,” Nandu explains that the outskirts of Gorakhpur’s villages are gripped by caste-wars, with a growing Sena army, one that he has just recently joined.

As a friend pointed out to me, the film may be making reference to the Ranvir Sena from Bihar, which had initially developed to harass lower castes, though received comeuppance from the Maoists, and who have been around longer than news reports portray. In the film, however, the Sena is out to seek revenge from a neighboring village of Thakurs.

It is to these caste-wars that the Muslim is witness. When Babban angrily goes in search of Nandu, he accidentally interrupts a meeting, witnessing fiery oration and the distribution of rifles by the Sena army. Cornering Babban, Sena guerrillas threaten him, ordering him never to return to the area, sparing him presumably because he comes with good credentials: a guest of the late Verma-ji. Babban as witness is quite interesting, for if shahid—martyr—means bearing witness, it is worth visiting what the Muslim figure as witness in this narrative implies…

Upon his return, an exasperated Babban explains to Khalujaan that they need to leave immediately:

yeh jaga bahut danger hai…hamare paas to sirf sunni aur shia ka chalta hai, lekin yahan to har jaat ki apni apni sena hai, khalu!

This place is dangerous! We just have Sunni and Shi’a differences, but here, each caste has gotten together his own army, Khalu!

My (not so fully developed) theory: in bearing witness to the caste-war preparations, the Muslim as witness in Ishqiya interrupts widespread narratives of the War on Terror, where the root problem of insurgencies in Muslim countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, is seen to be (political) Islam. In presenting the figure of the Muslim interrupting a caste-war under way, and then commenting upon it, is the filmic narrative implicitly suggesting a historical, comparative, and regional connection between the sectarian conflagrations of Pakistan, and the ‘tribal/low-caste’ Maoist insurgencies rocking the red corridor of India? I am not quite sure how else to read the Muslim (as a minority) bearing witness to organized political violence centered upon ‘caste’…. I do wonder that had the portrayal in Ishqiya been of the Shiv Sena, as an open critique of rightest forces in India, if such an interruption may have been possible.

A debate between uncle and nephew then ensues, as to whether to stay put or go on the run again with Khalujaan saying he can’t have it on his conscience that Krishna’s life is at Mushtaq Bhai’s mercy. The debate is put to end by Krishna herself, who tells them at rifle-point that nothing will be decided without her permission, a punishment for fools who have put her life on the line.

It is at this point where Krishna officially hijacks the narrative.

If Ishqiya does not fall into simplistic narrative portrayals about the minoritized Muslim, neither does it fall into some fable about an un-hitched young woman (here, widow) waiting to be rescued. From this point onwards, Krishna does not drive the narrative as a simple object of the two thieves’ affection: rather, she is the brains behind a heist carried out by the threesome. Having captured both their hearts, she persuades them into a plan to kidnap a local millionaire and hold him ransom. ‘If you throw a stone in Gorakphur, it will land on the head of one millionaire or another,” says Krishna, for if rural UP is ridden with caste wars and poverty, then the bustling cotu of Gorakpur is home to a class of the newly moneyed. Krishna has learned her husband’s vocation, having tracked Verma’s exploits, his records, and studied all his cons. She suggests one Kakkar, a local steel tycoon, as their unwitting victim.

For anyone who has watched Sholay Ishqiya’s widow is a nice rejoinder to the armless Thakur’s chaste and sorrowful daughter-in-law. Recall that Thakur had enlisted two thieves to fight off dacoit Gabbar Singh, but in Ishqiya it is Krishna as widow who has brought in her two guests/admirers for her own independent agenda. When the two thieves first appear at Krishna’s doorstep late in the night, an elderly widow of the village bangs on the door, asking, ‘Krishna, people for you. Where are you? Have you gone and burnt yourself up?” In these gestures—here the implication of satiIshqiya hints too at a history of politics around the ‘woman –community – nation’ question in India, heating up in the late 1980s, following the sati case of Roop Kanwar of Rajastan and the rise of the Hindu right in Indian politics right into the liberalization era.

The link between property and womanhood—Krishna is seemingly the sole proprietor of the house—is a tense one. We see in Krishna the possibility of sexual and intellectual agency, without narrative recourse of turning her either into a kind-hearted, redeemed prostitute who is sacrificed at the end of the narrative, or as someone’s wife or betrothed. That is, in Ishqiya there is the refusal to give Krishna an ending in either marriage or death. Nor is there any recourse to making Khalujaan, Babban, and Krishna as part of a narrative of thick religious difference—for anyone familiar with the predictability of Hindu-Muslim love stories of Bollywood (a la Bombay, Veer Zara, etc.,). Rather, it depicts the triad of Krishna, Khalujaan and Babban in a space of friendship, love, kinship, and intimacy far beyond the narrow confines of middle-class hetero-normativity and morality and always just beyond the reach of the state: a shared space of marginality in guiding human relationships, and challenging power structures. Indeed Khalujaan, Babban, and Krishna share in the most intimate of political relations: bringing moral retribution to a most sinister Sena leader.

Towards the end, Khalujaan and Babban feel betrayed, reeling from the discovery that Krishna had stolen their money and hidden it all along, deciding to carry out the operation alone, and interrogating Kakkar about Verma’s whereabouts. Krishna claims that Kakkar is one of Verma’s men and that Verma is still alive. But Khalujaan and Babban do not believe her, since, “a woman can’t be trusted…”—a statement quickly laid to rest by none other than the low-caste Nandu—as the newly initiated Sena member—who narrates the truth of her tale.

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