Dedh Ishqiya is special. Special because it makes certain points and portrays certain themes on the silver screen with such artistic brilliance, beauty, boldness and subtlety that one cannot help but marvel. The evocative use of Urdu creates an atmosphere which asks one to sit back, soak in the romance of a by-gone era and savour every moment of it. At one level Dedh Ishqiya is almost like a medieval romance set in the 21st century (the humorous references to the iPhone is a reminder of that). Laced with intrigues and counter intrigues and punctuated with humour the narrative takes in its stride some significant subjects- claims to aristocracy by the nouveau riche, the debate surrounding inherent artistic ability and feigned artistic glory. At the heart of the narrative, however, almost secretly protected in a gilded box is a pristine and beautiful relationship between the two female protagonists of the film- Muniya(Huma Qureshi) and Begum Para(Madhuri Dixit). Even the revelation of the fact that the relationship between Begum Para and Muniya is something more than friendship towards the climax (the much talked about shadow play and a reference to “Lihaaf”-evoking the allusion to Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf) is so aesthetically and soothingly achieved that one is left wonder struck.
Fire was the last mainstream Hindi film to have positively portrayed a lesbian relationship and that presentation too had its share of critics and admirers. The critics pointed out to the fact that the relationship that the female leads of Fire shared hinged upon an immensely patriarchal basis as it was only after the women were denied their husband’s love that they turned to each other for emotional and physical solace. However, the story in Dedh Ishqiya is different. At one level critics could argue that the case here is the same as Begum Para was not loved by her husband, whose sole preoccupations of gambling, alcoholism and pederasty (laundebaazi) are made explicit in the film, and therefore found in Muniya a friend, a partner and a soul-mate. That may be true but she does not simply accept Muniya as a substitute for a man. She exercises agency, and even when she is presented with a choice- as she has in Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah), whom she herself acknowledges as a lover one can only dream to have – she chooses to spend the rest of her life with Muniya. It is this aspect of the agency that she exercises both with respect to her existence as well as her sexuality which makes Dedh Ishqiya a path breaking film.
It does not scream out or ask the audiences to gobble lessons related to female autonomy but subtly(and subtly is an understatement here) communicates Begum Para’s angst and new found happiness in a statement she makes, “Mujhe Jeene Ki Aazadi Chahiye.” She is desirous of freedom and her right to be which has been denied to her at every stage of her existence. Her marriage caused her to wilt, it caused her to stifle the dancer within her and dance is something that she embodies. Her husband’s death and Muniya’s company gave her a new reason to live for herself, a new reason to do what she always wanted to and a purpose to exist. It is this opportunity that is denied to countless women not only in India but in every corner of the world where patriarchy looms large. Dedh Ishqiya may not be a member of the 100 crore or 200 crore club of Indian cinema, but it is an achievement in cinematic excellence a few can parallel.
- Dedh Ishqiya – A Beautiful Portrayal of Lesbian Love - January 28, 2014