With his new film Ishaqzaade, Habib Faisal takes a brave leap away from the aspirational middle class Delhi terrain he ploughed so expertly in Do Dooni Chaar (his directorial debut) and Band Baaja Baraat (which he wrote).
In Ishaqzaade, set in the fictional small town of Almore, the dreams that drive Faisal’s characters are no longer the little desires of little people: a new car, a bigger binness. What the Chauhans and the Qureishis are fighting over is Almore itself: a place whose location in the badlands of North India is announced as clearly by the swirling clouds of dust that rise from its roads as by the gunshots that casually punctuate every sentence – alongside the gaalis. The game might be grubby, but the stakes are high.
Faisal’s arresting opening scene – the children of both families pelting stones at each other going home from school – sets the tone of the very adult war to follow: epic, but also down-and-dirty. The film opens in the run-up to an election, in which the Chauhans are determined, by hook or by crook, to wrest power back from the currently-in-power Qureishis. Among the grown-up children of the two families, each now plotting the political downfall of the other, are Parma and Zoya.
Zoya is the spirited daughter of the Qureshi khandaan, the only girl in a houseful of boys. She is the sort of girl whose eyes sparkle more at the sight of guns than jhumkas, a girl whose complete confidence in herself seems to come as much from a familial sense of entitlement as a purely physical absence of fear.
Parma (debutante Arjun Kapoor) is a long-limbed wild-haired young hooligan who thinks it’s a lark to set fire to a poor man’s shop if he so much as suggests selling some of his diesel to the Qureishis. Oh, and it’s also a defence of his family’s honour. The more the Chauhan patriarch, thinks of his youngest grandson as an incompetent, impractical fool who can do nothing right, the more Parma secretly swears to make his Dadda proud.
Needless to say, Zoya and Parma hate each other. Until they decide to fall in love. One of the successes of Ishaqzaade is the way Faisal establishes, with just a few strokes, the transformation of this relationship from mutual disdain and prejudice to grudging admiration – and then, unabashed attraction. He is greatly helped by his leading lady, Parineeti Chopra, who follows up a wonderful debut as the plumply petulant Dimple Chadda in last year’s Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl with a superb performance here.
As the tomboyish Zoya, taking large strides even in a heavy sharara, commanding her beau to hold her sharara as she climbs into a train “ladies first”, Parineeti’s Zoya embodies the natural, incandescent assurance of a young woman who doesn’t know what it’s like not to get her way.
But the place of women in this world is too precarious for that tenuous status to last. “Mardon ki haveli, mardon ki zubaan,” says Dadda proudly, registering but not quite apologising for the many behen-sprinkled abuses that greet a mere non-functioning generator in his family home. The impending tragedy here is apparent, and it is one that Faisal’s film unpacks with clear-eyed exactitude: in this world of men, no amount of indulgence and spoilt-daughter status is enough to secure a woman’s dignity, her place in the household, or even her life.
Zoya’s first encounter with her innate vulnerability as a woman – I will not give away the plot by telling you what causes it – makes her incredibly angry, at first. But as it becomes clear that her seemingly implacable position in this universe was nothing but an illusion, a rug pulled from under her feet, rage gives way to sorrow.
Parma’s widowed mother, with her uneasy position in her father-in-law’s household, subject alternately to accusations of having devoured her husband and displays of patriarchal generosity in having given her a roof over her head, is the film’s other example of a woman whose indomitable spirit and staunch values cannot defend her from a world weighted so heavily against her.
The necessary outside of this patriarchal world of ghar-grihasthi is another kind of female presence: Chand, the localkothewali, a sinuous charmer with a soft spot for Parma. It’s easy to see what Habib Faisal is trying to do here, setting up the brothel as the one place where the bitter Hindu-Muslim feuds of the world outside have no purchase. It’s a cliched idea – the whorehouse as the place without prejudice, the great equaliser – but it might still have worked if it were written with more nuance, or given more meat by the sadly underwhelming Gauhar Khan. As it is, Faisal gives us a one-line depiction of the way women from these worlds eye each other with suspicion (“Hum dance waliyon ke munh nahi lagte,” says Zoya to Chand) – and then proceeds to break the barriers down with an ease that defies belief.
Ishaqzaade has many strengths. The locales – from crumbling railway sheds to a vast school chemistry lab – are nicely used without drawing attention to their own artistry. Faisal’s usually impeccable dialogue is occasionally overbaked, but it has undeniable grit: which recent Hindi film has had the courage to have a protagonist calling his lover a Musalli? Arjun Kapoor plays his combination of machismo and childish stupidity with exaggerated gestures that annoyed me rather than winning me over, but Faisal’s central characters are still more sharply realized than most directors can manage. And anyway, the film is worth watching just for Parineeti.
But ultimately, Ishaqzaade fails us. Not just because it gives us a climax that feels like a cop-out, even as it strains desperately to be epic. But because its final tragedy is triggered by Zoya’s still surviving faith – in herself, the world, and the lout she so inexplicably loves – while we who are watching can only wonder why she didn’t give up on all of it long ago.