Ishqiya

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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what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

38 thoughts on “Ishqiya”

  1. “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”
    Not a correct statement. They were formed to fight Naxalites like Indian People’s front or whoever tried to grab their land. It is true that they also harrassed lower caste because they formed bulk of the Naxals.

    This is incorrect; while they were formed by various landed upper caste groups to counter Naxal influence; they have done this mainly by attacking lower castes and more specifically Dalits not so much OBCs. They have been preceded by various other militas like the Kuer Sena and Sunlight Sena etc. who were developed to counter-balance increased lower caste assertiveness. I also want to add that it is gratuitous to say it is simply about grabbing land; what is at stake is basically the autonomy and the ability of the landless almost always Dalits to obtain their actually guaranteed rigts like minimum wages, share of the crops, practise of untouchability and freedom of harassment – especially sexual exploitation of their women. It is the inability of the state to guarantee these rights and the obvious unwillingness of the landed castes/classes to conceed them that has created the problem and it is hardly a new one – way back in the 1970s Karpoori Thakur floated the idea of distributing arms to the lower castes in response to the rise of massacres of lower caste villages at the time.

  2. I’ve also heard that Maqbool and Omkara did poorly among non-metropolitan crowds, but I don’t think that means it only resonated with elite audiences. I saw Omkara, for the third of four times, at the Anjuman theater in Lucknow, one of the city’s many wonderful, old, run-down theaters popular among rickshawale and other workingmen, many of them migrants (tickets Rs. 10-20 depending on where you sit). The audience was pretty big and very enthusiastic, in comparison with other movies I’ve seen at the same theater, including Sholay, Jab Jab Phool Khile, and Dharam-Veer.

  3. I can attest that at least in the early 90s in Lahore, chutiyyam sulfate was known as a “lame” Karachiite slang. We Lahoris would quote it merely to laugh at the mediocre talent displayed in such un-imaginative insults.

  4. They were..how shall I say…not ‘nice kids’ and their vocabulary was peppered with other unnecessary references to female anatomy.

    I find the use of the slang by these two somewhat weird. It combines a certain sort of lowbrowness with an unexpected bit of erudition. These worlds usually only meet in the mind of a schoolboy.

  5. No question of “[n]ot true” bhai, it is true that I had never heard it in Mumbai/Hyderabad or from people from there. I hadn’t made any wider claim; you’re pointing out that it was more widely used than I had imagined, that’s good to know.

    Re: “…This expression was popular in my highschool in Bombay among characters – who while not always Muslim – bore many other resemblances to Babban-bhai and Khalu miya.”

    What do you mean? i.e. that they were lafanga-types, or do you mean that, although from Bombay, these chaps were from families originally from somewhere else?

  6. “chootiyum sulphate” or its abbreviation “sulphate”) that I had previously only heard in Karachi or from Karachiites (mostly those whose families migrated from U.P./Bihar). I had never heard this sort of thing in Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc.,

    Not true. This expression was popular in my highschool in Bombay among characters – who while not always Muslim – bore many other resemblances to Babban-bhai and Khalu miya. I have never heard it from an adult.

  7. Something tells me that if Krishna and Babbah/Khalujaan’s religious identities had been reversed, it might have spawned a few PhD theses regarding “The depiction of Muslim womanhood in Bollywood”.

    ;-)

  8. Well, not completely inaccurate Quizfan: all three characters referred to by those names in the Mahabharata — Krishna; Draupadi; Vyaasi — have names that originate in the K(r)sn root, meaning “black”. That, combined with the fact that in contemporary Hindi the two are pronounced virtually indistinguishably, suggests to me that Basanti’s linkage is a valid one.

  9. Btw, Basanti wrote, “The name Krishna is appropriate—as Vidya Balan’s character conveys the mischievous, clever, seductive, thieving, and much adored Krishna of folklore.”

    Quite inaccurate. The name Krishna that you are alluding to is applied to males. However, KrishnA (with the accent on the last syllable) is the name of Draupadi. Ergo, the avenger.

  10. “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”
    Not a correct statement. They were formed to fight Naxalites like Indian People’s front or whoever tried to grab their land. It is true that they also harrassed lower caste because they formed bulk of the Naxals.

  11. Quibble – It is Feroz Khan. There is another noteworthy director of plays called Feroz Khan. The latter was famous in the 1990s for directing the well known play ‘Tumhari Amrita’ with Shabana Azmi and Farooque Shaikh.

    Indeed. And that showcases a kindly old orthodox Muslim loosely based on Haji Mastan.

    You wrote; “but it is surely no great stretch to see this as a kind of conservative reaction”. Actually, there is a far less sinister reason than that. For many years, the censor board simply did not allow politicians, government officials or ministers/cops to be shown in a bad light. It was even rare for one to see a traffic cop taking a bribe. Such instances had to be balanced by a portrayal of a good cop, often through the insertion of a non-sequitur character, to pass by the censor board. I recall the days in the 1980s when film makers had to fight tooth & nail to portray politicians in a negative light. You may recall how Sanjay Gandhi unleashed his goons at Kissa Kursi Ka.

    Vijay Tendulkar opened the floodgates not with Ardh Satya though. The film that really broke barriers was written by him in Marathi and was given the rather obvious title ‘Simhasan’. It was directed by the redoubtable Dr. Jabbar Patel.

    While politicians had been distasteful prior to the 1980s, apart from TTK none of the politicians were exposed for graft. It was really the Arun Shourie led charge against Antulay that led the floodgates. Then came the terrible duo of Devi Lal and his son Chautala. Newstrack and Nalini Singh brought cow belt politics into the living rooms of Indians.

    I wouldn’t read too much into the caste angle.

  12. You know, until you wrote that I had never made the connection between Mudaliar and Ardh Satya (focusing only on the more famous example of Mani Rathnam’s “Nayakan” (itself ripped off by Firoz Khan in the Hindi “Dayavan”)), thanks!

  13. Re: “I read that as a scene that was inspired by Godfather III in which Corleone’s man enters the office of the rival don under a pretext is bodily searched and can only kill the don by thrusting his own spectacles in his throat. You may recall that the don in ATC makes sure that Agashe is not armed and obviously since neither of them wore glasses, he had to use another sharp implement. ”

    Quizfan: to be honest I find it hard to read the film only in that way, given that the slit throat is a visual cue with a history (even in Hey Ram, a film featuring numerous representations of communal violence, only Rani Mukherjee — raped and killed by her own Muslim tailor — has her throat slit; I have already mentioned the Sarkar example (it stands out there because most others are shot in this film)), although I do concede that the script has more rationale for it than (e.g.) Sarkar’s did.

    Re: “…for a long time the mainstream Hindi film industry did not represent a reality based view of the underworld.”

    Presumably because in the days of “garibi hatao” Indira Gandhi, the films reserved their ire for smugglers (read: businessmen). i.e. I would argue that there was no “underworld” as such in the films of those days, you had slimy and wicked business men (hence Davar; but also the villains who only had initials for names: JK, et al.) but no “dons”. The latter emerge on screen in the 1980s, as you point out (Dharmatma is a Godfather rip-off, and is not organic in the same way), along with — and this needs greater attention than it has hitherto received — the political villain (almost always a rapist to boot). In fact, even more than the “bhais”, the 1980s are notable for the rapist-politicians who seem to be gallivanting across the landscape. Doubtless, open criminality has been on the rise among politicians for decades, but it is surely no great stretch to see this as a kind of conservative reaction to the crumbling of the “Congress consensus”/rise of “lower” caste politics, etc. No-one, it seems, is more loathsome than the politician who one feels does not represent one (the contrast with the gangster is instructive: as I said, even the worst of these will almost never be shown raping, torturing innocent people, and the like; only the police and/or politicians will be seen doing that; leading to a more complicated portrayal than is acknowledged by some of those who seem to view B’wood only through the prism of problematic representations of minorities).

  14. Re: “Ironically, the Muslim don gained prominence through films that were largely financed by the underworld.”

    Or, not so ironically, inasmuch as this goes to my point that — unlike with the jihadi — the “robin hood” element does NOT make this an unflattering stereotype in the same way. Janasheen is a variant, but not un-related: this film, produced and directed by Firoz Khan, features him as the most Pashtun gangster imaginable; no other director casts him this way, and watching the film, it is clear that this is a great phallic high for the dude.

  15. Qalandar: “Quizfan: yes it is the Hindu cop who slits the Muslim gangster’s throat, but he kills NO ONE ELSE that way; ”

    I read that as a scene that was inspired by Godfather III in which Corleone’s man enters the office of the rival don under a pretext is bodily searched and can only kill the don by thrusting his own spectacles in his throat. You may recall that the don in ATC makes sure that Agashe is not armed and obviously since neither of them wore glasses, he had to use another sharp implement.

    The allegations of corruptions against Daya Nayak came up recently (2007-ish) after the film was made and released.

    Btw, the first big time dons of Mumbai were Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel (and their proteges Karim Lala and co). But for a long time the mainstream Hindi film industry did not represent a reality based view of the underworld. The character in Deewar who recruits Amitabh is named Davar (a Parsi name!).

    Arguably, the first film that represented the underworld in its naked reality was ‘Ardh Satya’ whose don (‘Rama Shetty’) was largely based on Vardarajan Mudaliar. Ironically, the Muslim don gained prominence through films that were largely financed by the underworld.

  16. Re: “…while Hathyar’s Khan (played by Dharmendra as the most virtuous character in the film)…”

    One clarification: I mis-spoke above: the most virtuous characters in Hathyar are the two Gandhian sorts: Dharmendra’s religious brother (played by Rishi Kapoor), himself the Muslim twin of Sanjay Dutt’s Rajput father (played by Kulbhushan), who flees his village for Bombay rather than stay on and join in the clan warfare. Dharmendra is the most noble and admirable character in the film, but the film surely intends us to regard those other two as the more virtuous. [Given Dutta’s great weakness in his other films from the period for the myth of the macho Rajputs, it is just as unsurprising that Rishi is in a blink-and-you-miss-him part, and Kulbhushan, well, is just ineffectual and beset upon by life, ultimately coming to a tragic end. Dutta’s heart — and certainly the pulse of his films’ old-fashioned sweep — belong(s) to the warriors.]

    [Aside: the fact that the ultra-pacifist Muslims in films that I can think of (I don’t mean kindly folks in general, but people who espouse pacifism as an ideology) are both “pathans” suggests the continued dim resonance of the “Frontier Gandhi” paradigm. The “noble warrior” from the frontier also crops up from time to time (in Zanjeer (1973); Godfather re-make Dharmatma (1975); the period piece, so bad-it’s-good Palay Khan (1986) (you mean, you DON’T want to see a film where the British general is called Bonz?); Sanam Bewafa (1991); Khuda Gawah (1992); and Janasheen (2003); in the last named, this is so clearly part of the Firoz Khan self-image it isn’t funny)), and is more common than the pacifist…

  17. Quizman: re: Imtiyaz: I confess I am drawing a blank on this aspect of Ab Tak Chappan (it’s distressing; perhaps my reflexive hostility about films that seem to extoll the virtues of encounter killers has caused amnesia :-)), and will need to re-visit it. Thanks for the shout…

  18. Aligarian: Just to clarify, it was not the geographic origin (from U.P.) I find “off” in Maqbool, it was the cultural milieu… I certainly would never accuse Bhardwaj of bias or anything like that — but, in both Omkara and Maqbool, I do feel that his “showiness” — his characters seem to me to perform their “native”/”ethnic” background a little too ostentatiously for urban audiences (aside: both Maqbool and Omkara only did well in pockets in the major cities) — can be distorting… I actually preferred his Kaminey to both of his previous films.

    Quizfan: yes it is the Hindu cop who slits the Muslim gangster’s throat, but he kills NO ONE ELSE that way; it is the climax of the film, this big baddie has called him to Dubai, etc. Seems to me the film was showing that he got what he was perhaps dishing out to others…

    And yes, the film is based on Daya Nayak, but it didn’t address all those other aspects of Nayak’s life, did it? The accusations about corruption, that he was on one gangster’s payroll to knock off people from rival gangs, etc. In fairness to him I should say he was cleared of charges, but I can’t help feeling there was more to the story. [Aside: In the B’wood (sort of) mould, I think Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games does an excellent job of evoking the world of the Bombay police officer]…

  19. Re: “Naseeruddin Shah, who represents one of the last Urdu-wallahs of the IPTA generation.”
    I don’t think Naseeruddin Shah can be categorised as last Urdu wallah of the IPTA; that may be more appropriate for people like Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Sahir, Balraj Sahni, Habib Tanvir etc. Other then the fact that he graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and he can speak urdu, I doubt he has any contribution to Urdu Literature.
    @ Qalander:
    Re: “perhaps most galling of all for me was “Maqbool”I find it galling”
    A lot of Muslim gangsters in Bombay are from UP[esp Eastern], Gujarat and Bihar and they have mannerisms of that particular area. The character played by Pankaj Kapur was an excellent portrayal of a “namazi and tameezdaar” bhai; from say anywhere between Kanpur to Gorakhpur.
    The fact that Vishal Bhardwaj is from Merrut, makes him very aware of Hindu-Muslim fault lines, and the can easily avoid the stereotypes prevalent in Bollywood cinema, and one can smell the dust of western UP in his language and syntax.

  20. Qalandar wrote: ‘I submit that when racked up against the South Indian gangsters of films as far removed in time as Agneepath (1990) and Sarkar (2005); or the sinister caste Hindu gangsters of Thakshak, Muslims haven’t done too badly at all (their cinematic ubiquity poses a problem, of course).”

    Actually, you don’t have to go that far at all. The lower caste Maoist Sena leader (beguilingly called ‘Varma’, not a lower caste name) attempts to burn his own wife in Ishqiya. That attempt was the entire raison d’etre for the film. That was more interesting to me than the Muslim-ness of the two main characters.

  21. Also, the Hindu cop Sadhu Agashe is the one who slits the Muslim gangster’s throat in Ab tak chappan.

    Btw, req Ishqiya – I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The plot had too many holes and in the end, all you’re left with is an admiration for the acting, screenplay and ‘what could’ve been’ with a director who was not hell-bent on making a statement with every shot. :-)

  22. Re the criticism heaped on Ab Tak Chappan – it was based largely on a real cop Daya Nayak. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daya_Nayak
    I thought Shimit Amin, the director handled the other cop Imtiyaz really well. He is troubled by having to compete with Sadhu Agashe as well as obey his superior’s orders.

  23. Re: “…when we turn to films such as Ab Tak Chappan, there is a relentless piling up of corpses in the muhallahs and their suggestions to the nefarious connections of Dubai, tend to imply that the bhai-log serve communal interests.”

    To add to your point, one thing I have long found distasteful about this sort of film (i.e. “Ab Tak Chappan” and “Sarkar”; not Company) is that the Muslim gangster often does not just shoot his people but is depicted as cutting the victim’s throat, an offensive visual cue to the Muslim-as-butcher stereotype (and perhaps a linkage with the sort of jihadi who sacrifices — as opposed to merely kills — his victims; going to your point about the proximity of the underworld and terrorist figures)…where the gangster is the hero, he is never shown doing this (this distasteful cue is most striking when one considers that Sarkar and Company were directed by the same filmmaker). And perhaps most galling of all for me was “Maqbool”, a film lauded by far too many liberals, but which infuriated me for its depiction of a bhai culture that was steeped in the Urdu tehzeeb of “the North” — utterly incongruous to me, and problematic because of its casual linkage of one “sign” of Muslimness — the Urdu sub-culture — with another — the Muslim “bhai”, as if all such signs could be assimilated to each other. Perhaps that is more about B’wood’s increasingly problematic relation to “the ethnic” , as opposed to simply “the Muslim”, but be that as it may…

  24. This is not to suggest that the “Muslim gangster” is entirely unproblematic, merely that he shares several elements of the folk hero (the jihadi terrorist generally features none, although there have been occasional commercial attempts to redeem him: most focus on the “youth led astray” trope (Fiza; here also militancy is a response to communal violence) but the most successful (the utterly mediocre Fanaa) featured a terrorist played by a Big Time Hero who never repents, and is not given any justification for his cause; the most radical such popular film, the superb “Dil Se”, flopped miserably), and the recent “Raavan” by the same director, which featured a similarly unrepentant tribal/jungle leader and sinister men in uniform, also met the same fate). If we had to pinpoint a year, I’d pick 1988, when both the “threatening other” and the “noble warrior” can be seen in the figure of the Muslim gangster (if memory serves me correctly, this year featured the birth of the Muslim “bhai”). Tezaab’s Lotia Pathan is the former (the film features a clear Ramayana-inspired sequence when Anil Kapoor’s Munna and Chunky Pandey’s Muslim Hanuman rescure Madhuri’s Sita from Lotia’s basti), while Hathyar’s Khan (played by Dharmendra as the most virtuous character in the film) is the latter.* As an aside, I would stress that often people focus on Muslim gangsters without accounting for how OTHER groups’ gangsters are represented. I submit that when racked up against the South Indian gangsters of films as far removed in time as Agneepath (1990) and Sarkar (2005); or the sinister caste Hindu gangsters of Thakshak, Muslims haven’t done too badly at all (their cinematic ubiquity poses a problem, of course).

    *[As an aside, if you haven’t seen them, I would pick J.P. Dutta’s Rajasthan tetralogy (of sorts) (Ghulami; Yateem; Hathyar; Batwara) as among the best popular Hindi films of the 1980s; it’s the closest Bollywood gets to the epic mode.]

  25. Amit: your comment reminded me of the scene from Sholay:

    Basanti (after prattling on for ages to the smitten Veeru, and the bored Jai; and referring to herself in the third person): “…aap ne ab tak hamara naam nahin poocha”

    Jai (drily): “Tumhara naam kya hai Basanti?”

  26. Certainly, an “Ab Tak Chappan” is part of that other hallowed B’wood tradition, which began as celebrating vigilante/populist violence (against the police, state, what-have-you), and has ended up along the “punishment is necessary” lines (the line stretches back to the likes of Zanjeer and Deewar, and the problematic potential was always latent in films like the former, but it took a change in political climate for the true horror of bourgeois “kill ‘em all” populism to make its way so nakedly to film). I should note, however, that Ab Tak Chappan (or other vigilante encounter cop films, such as Bobby Deol’s Kranti) is, even today, a rarer bird than the populist gangster film. “Black Friday” I would exempt entirely from the tradition: it is based on a non-fiction book by veteran journalist Hasan Zaidi, and every character is based on fact; that, or the fact that it is directed by known progressive Anurag Kashyap does not immunize it from critique, but I see its dark pleasures as lying in its refusal to (for the most part) judge. The underworld does receive support from Pakistan in this film (which in itself I regard as a completely unproblematic representation: even apart from all that has emerged over the last 17 years, through books like Zaidi’s as well as the various trials, given that Dawood Ibrahim and more than one of his lieutenants lives quite well in Pakistan, it cannot seriously be doubted that one or another arm of the Pakistani state was complicit in support for Dawood’s gang; just as no-one can doubt — and certainly the film doesn’t — that the immediate motivation for the terror attacks — as Tiger Memon says in the film, to exact revenge for “our brothers and sisters” — was thoroughly local) but Kashyap’s paints a world where everyone — police, gangsters — seems distasteful and violent (the police tactics depicted are disturbing enough; one sequence — showing the sexual assault of detainees’ wives/sisters by cops — didn’t make it past the censors, but we are nevertheless left with a clear enough implication of some of the tactics used by the men in uniform to make suspects talk); he also explicitly draws a link between the communal violence of 1992-93 and the 1993 terrorist attacks in Mumbai (the film is prefaced by Gandhi’s “eye for an eye makes everyone blind” quote: “Black Friday” is for a world populated by the blind).

  27. Your point about how there is not much here in the way of a critique of the Hindu right (or for that matter the irrelevance of Nehruvian secularism, etc.,) is well-taken, though I was careful enough in my wording to suggest subtle. I thought it was present in the depiction of the ambiguous Krishna as widow/wife, as well as in the gesture towards the end of the film when the elderly woman sets the house alight. Given the way in which gendered violence has featured as part and parcel of rightest forces, it struck me that there might be something more to the structure of Krishna’s revenge than simply ‘ishq.’ Although, I can see why this point did not come out as clearly as I had intended, given my focus on the representation of the Muslim vagabonds. The ‘as if’ space you discuss is precisely the shared social of which I made mention—so my point was precisely that it was a relief to see that Hindu-Muslim difference were not the essential fault lines here.

    As per your point regarding a some films (Company, etc.,) which portray the Muslim gangster-bhai log characters not as anti-India figures, but as subterranean non-state actors delivering justice in the absence of justice: as you rightly point out, such figures are represented as pro-people but when we turn to films such as Ab Tak Chappan, there is a relentless piling up of corpses in the muhallahs and their suggestions to the nefarious connections of Dubai, tend to imply that the bhai-log serve communal interests. (Think of Black Friday also). (Hmm, then again, I just noticed your caveat here, regarding the issue of who is portrayed as the hero)….here, I must admit, I haven’t watched enough films featuring Muslim gangsters to situate them in relation to complicating the jihadi terrorist narrative.

    The heart and soul of the film, yes, was very much in its linguistics/language, the turns of phrase…

  28. RE: “I am not quite sure how else to read the Muslim (as a minority) bearing witness to organized political violence centered upon ‘caste’…. ”

    It is not at all uncommon for Muslims in my experience to say that “we have it better” than Hindus because there’s no caste system, etc. (whether or not this is a claim that can be taken at face value is not the point; my point goes to Muslim self-image, especially that of the Urdu-speaking urban Muslim; conversely, there is some truth to it: the reality of caste prejudice amongst Muslims notwithstanding, it lacks the ritualistic valence — and hence the caste-based violence lacks the ritualistic quality one can often discern with caste-violence in India). I have myself heard it many times from relatives and others — hence the frisson when I heard Warsi say this in the film; I was delighted to see this “authentic” touch here, and done in a way that wasn’t nasty or bigoted, just bewildered (perhaps even a corrective to those — in the Hindu Right or among the “Muslim First-ers” — modern big-city-dwellers who tend to think of Hindu/Muslim as THE essential fault-line in India; only recently have Muslim Indian groups begun to cast aside their historic tendency to view “Hindus” as a monolithic bloc (the sort they represent “Muslims” to themselves as, but that’s another story), a belated attempt to come to grips with the profound ways in which “lower” caste-politics has changed the political discourse in the country)…

  29. Part of a brief note I had written on the film: “Ishqiya is better than most films the Hindi film industry makes, even if its pleasures weren’t the ones I was expecting. I went into the film looking for a taut, erotically charged thriller about a femme fatale manipulating two saps over a pot of gold, film noir in a bhaiyya-setting as it were. What I got was a compelling evocation of a small-town U.P. milieu (the (in)famous badlands of Gorakhpur district, along the Nepal border), a locale debutant director Abhishek Chaubhey has presented even more naturally than his mentor Vishal Bhardwaj ever managed with his out-of-the-way settings in either Maqbool or Omkara(that is to say, Chaubhey does it “simply”, such that the presentation of the milieu (to “outsiders”) does not itself become the point of the film). Thus, in place of the exoticized Muslim gangsters of Maqbool, we have Khalujan/Iftiqar (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban/Raza Hussain (Arshad Warsi), two small-time thieves who don’t perform either their “Muslimness”, or their “U.P.-ness” — the viewer simply finds them as they are. As (s)he does Krishna (Vidya Balan), the lady of the house where the two thieves have sought refuge, on the run from Mushtaqbhai (played by the famous Pakistani actor Salman Shahid) over the small matter of 20 (missing) lakhs.

    The dialogs and interplay between the three principal characters are the best part about the film: each of the three loves to talk, and two of them — Khalujan and Krishna — share a great weakness for old Hindi film songs (the third, well, Babban’s heart is more likely to skip a beat in response to Apna Sapna Money Money’s “Dekha jo tujhe yaar / Dil mein baje guitar”; although, make no mistake, all three take their cue from that film’s title), and the film is strongest when the viewer’s ear is thus engaged…. “

  30. Re: “…a film that deserved more careful attention than it received…”

    I mean, of course, from the mainstream media.

    Aside: the film was linguistically very interesting to me as well. In it, I heard expressions (such as “chootiyum sulphate” or its abbreviation “sulphate”) that I had previously only heard in Karachi or from Karachiites (mostly those whose families migrated from U.P./Bihar). I had never heard this sort of thing in Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc., and it was interesting to see that sort of linguistic sign/trace show up in a contemporary Bollywood film. BTW, for those not familiar with Pakistani TV shows, Munawar bhai is played by the Pakistani actor Salman Shahid.

    In general, I loved the fact that one of your main prisms for this film was the idea of the vagabond. In fact, far from “[t]he figure of the Muslim in Ishqiya [being] that of … civilizing persona”, for me the seduction lay in the notion that today, only the low-life, the vagabond, the (I love this Hyderabadi expression) chindee chor, is the true heir to Ibn Batuta’s restless spirit. The cosmopolitans of today are no Ibn Batutas, even though we travel more than we ever used to; we are back in the big cities, watching this film with some measure of envy and disquiet — that sort of freedom is irretrievable to us…

  31. Thanks for this thoughtful take on a film that deserved more careful attention than it received, although I fundamentally disagree with your reading of the Hindu-Muslim fault-lines in this film. I agree with your point about the “shared spaces” the characters of this film seem to inhabit — and would add that the film inhabits an “as if” kind of space, namely the sort of space where the Hindu/Muslim fault-line doesn’t really matter, whether in life in general or in love (or lust, for that matter). As to whether this represents a fantasy or an authentic representation inaccessible to (the supposedly more civilized, more sedentary, urban and urbane) is a separate question — but my point is that I really don’t see any critique of the Hindu Right in this film at all (unless the point is that such representations of Muslims themselves constitute an implicit critique of the Hindu Right, which I do not buy). You are completely correct that there have been many many films with the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” duality, but there also have been (more in this decade than in the preceding one) a number of films featuring Muslim characters whose “Muslim -ness” is simply irrelevant, in the sense that it isn’t an issue (paradoxically, these films don’t stick in anyone’s memory because progressive critics tend not to think of these films as about “Muslim issues”). i.e. It isn’t an issue in the way that it is in contemporary politics; that’s how I tend to think of Ishqiya — the Muslim identity of Shah’s and Warsi’s characters is in-your-face, but the film is wonderfully un-self-conscious about it. Far from offering any kind of critique, these are two lowlifes on the run and (at least one of ‘em) trying to get laid — and they are able to be so in precisely the sort of Indian terrain (semi-rural/small-town eastern U.P.; Chaubhey said in an interview he is originally himself from Gorakhpur) where Muslim is just another kind of competing group identity (i.e., I see the Hindu Right, or Nehruvian secularism, as both just about irrelevant to the world of this film, which represents a certain cultural ethos, but does not make any kind of political claim). The Bollywood song/lyric references were for me precisely the sign that the film was making a cultural, as opposed to political, claim. [And, of course, the two male protagonists tap into a long tradition of lovable Bollywood tapori-types and ne’er do wells, many (though by no means all) of them “minority”, ranging from Rishi Kapoor’s and Amitabh’s Akbar and Anthony over three decades ago to communally ambiguous “Munna” and “Raja” types. In fact (and somewhat off-topic), the whole trend of Muslim gangsters represents an interesting variation; these have been (in my view problematically) dismissed by some progressives as examples of negative stereotyping of Muslims, but in my view are far more nuanced, and very different from the jihadi terrorist-sort. i.e., what is different is precisely that, despite the 1993 Bombay blasts and their aftermath, the underworld bhai is often NOT seen as an “anti-India” figure; in fact he is almost always (if, that is, played by a hero) imagined as a nobler figure than the cops and politicians arrayed with and against him (and this is true even in the supposedly grittier films of recent years); and more likely to be on the side of “the people” than the establishment is. The underworld “bhai” is often the glammed-up heir to the tradition of protest that one can trace back at least to Deewar’s 786-badge-toting Vijay (it will be interesting to see if the recent Once Upon A Time in Mumbai seeks to introduce the good gangster/bad gangster trope into the Haji Mastan/Dawood story, with (as in the Godfather), the older man not being willing to engage in certain kinds of dirty businesses etc.). Perhaps analogous to the law-breaking archetypal hero of hip-hop, this might explain why the bhai-stereotype is, in my experience, not felt by (younger, male) Muslims to be a negative stereotype the way the jihadi stereotype is (I do think that the older, more genteel Muslim sorts who write for mainstream English-language publications, be it a Saeed Naqvi or an M.J. Akbar, do tend to think of these as negative stereotypes). The “bhai”, for instance, is generally not a rapist, a drug-dealer, or a pedophile, nor does he kill innocent people — the sort of code B’wood does not expect from politicians, terrorists, and (often) policemen.]

    I fear I have ended up sounding more critical than I meant to be; that doesn’t really do justice to my experience of reading the piece, which, in fact, itself suggested a lot of what I’ve said above…

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