Dedh Ishqiya (2014, Urdu, India), sequel to Ishqiya (2010) is an adaptation of Ismat Chugtai’s famously controversial 1942 short story Lihaaf (‘The Quilt’). Director Abhishek Chaubey infuses Ishqiya’s racy thriller genre with Lihaaf’s avant-garde literary genius to produce a delectable outcome – a comic thriller with delectable doses of Urdu poetry and Gulzar’s evocative verse.
Lihaaf is a short story about Begum Jaan’s unfruitful marriage to a Nawab who indulges himself in the arms of “young, fair and slender-waisted boys” till Rabbu “brings life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan”. 70 years later, Bollywood retells this story of two women who find love and freedom under the quilt in the darkness of the night. What a poetic coincidence that this adaptation of Lihaaf for which Chugtai was tried in court, comes barely a month after Supreme Court’s verdict on 377 which re-criminalizes homosexuality!
Madhuri Dixit-Nene’s ‘Begum Paro Jaan’, a tribute to Ismat Aapa’s namesake, is her best come back so far and earns ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ a niche in Bollywood as an accomplished adaptation from theater to cinema. The film is also remarkable for Huma Qureshi’s pivotal character, the feisty Muniya, in her incipient yet promising-looking career. Arshad Warsi & Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of their bawdy, incorrigible Babban and Khaalu-jaan from the prequel “Ishqiya” keep the games of love, lust, sex and of course thievery alive and kicking.
It took 18 years after Deepa Mehta’s avant-garde “Fire” (1996), for an Indian film to centralize the love between two women. The identity politics or labeling – lesbian relationship or not – is the domain of queer theorists. Be that as it may, a remarkable achievement is that ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ raises the bar for narration of the queer experience in Bollywood.
In a beautiful scene played out in light and shadow, the men, who throughout the film dominate with their emotive hi-jinks trying to cajole their women to love them, eventually find themselves sidelined. They behold the women who consummate their love in a mutual dissolution of their shadows in a brilliant display of coquettish eroticism. In a scene reminiscent of ‘Thelma and Louise’, they surpass the restrictions of a male-dominated hetero-normative world to symbolically drive into a sunset they create for themselves, leaving a cloud of dust behind, a depiction of what straying from imposed limits costs a woman to find freedom. In the unforgettable words of the Begum, “Freedom is the most important and beautiful gift of life”. ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ asserts that everybody deserves their own.
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