Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya has received some of the best reviews in recent times. The shy director discusses the film with Subhash K Jha.
Very uniquely you’ve shown a lesbian relationship between the two female protagonists? This is the first instance of a lesbian relationship shown between two mainstream actresses since Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Deepa Mehta’s Fire. Weren’t you fearful of how the audience would react?
Of course the audiences’ reaction was at the back of my mind. But I have to have my twist in the tale, no matter what I make. I wanted to show the relationship with a certain lightness of touch. I didn’t want the lesbian idea to weigh on the plot. In order to portray the lesbianism I referenced to Ishmat Chugtai’s story Liaf, The whole shadow-play between the two women is a throwback to Liaf. I kept the erotic context light and suggested. That was my way of ensuring that conservative elements in the audience did not walk of out of my film. The Madhuri-Huma’s friendship is so beautiful it didn’t matter how far they go.
After Vidya Balan in Ishqiya you’ve created another startlingly mysterious and unorthodox heroine in Madhuri Dixit‘s character? Was it tough to follow up the original with this enigmatic follow-up?
We had no choice in the matter, really. Vidya Balan’s character had established very high levels of feisty conduct. If I made Madhuri’s character equally feisty what was there for me to that I hadn’t already done? I had to do something new here. Madhuri’s character Begum Para is far less of a go-getter than Vidya’s character. What we don’t actually say is that she suffers from Bi-polar disorder. I’ve hinted at it. There is a distinct inner and outer world in Begum Para’s life. Take that scene where she announces whom she’d marry. Just before she arrives on stage she takes a deep breath and puts on a smile. Every time she comes out in public she has to force a smile on her face. Her inner world is most tragic.
Dedh Ishqiya (DI) uses a pure refined Urdu language. Weren’t you apprehensive it would be incomprehensible to the man in Mumbai or Kolkata?
That fear of the language being inaccessible to a part of the audience was always there. Whatever is being written about the difficulties of the language had already been anticipated by Vishal Bhardwaj and I when we wrote the film. What you’re actually hearing is a toned-down language. We modified it after the second draft. We sat down and cut out some of the really difficult words. At the same time we couldn’t allow the flavour of the language to be lost. Then we also subtitled the Urdu dialogues. I personally did the subtitles. In our cinema we really don’t have a good idea of how the subtitling is done.
In the film you’ve assimilated the world of the ‘Muslim Social’ as seen in films like H S Rawail’s Mere Mehboob, and the contemporary world of materialism and iPhones. How tough was it to bring these two worlds together?
Thank you for saying that the two worlds jelled well. As a filmmaker it was a big challenge and a kick to create an alternate reality. When Vishal and I started DI, we wanted to create a world unique to this film and not try to take the franchise forward. At the same time, I had to keep the spirit of the two protagonists Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi alive. Vishal and I loved the challenge of fusing an old-world charm with iPhones.
Neither Vishal nor you are a Muslim. And yet your knowledge of Urdu is astonishing?
Although I’ve lived in Bihar for some years, I’ve spent most of my life in UP. While a lot of Awadhi was spoken in my home, the Hindi that was spoken had a lot of Urdu in it. That was because we lived in old Lucknow. We were a Hindu Brahmin family. And yet we’d speak more in Urdu. I grew up on the songs of Begum Akhtar. During my growing years, I didn’t much care for it. Only now do I realize what Begum Akhtar represents. Vishal’s love for Urdu poetry is unconditional. Dr Bashir Badr whose poetry we’ve used in DI used to be his next door neighbour. We had resolved very early during the writing that we’d incorporate Urdu language and ghazals in the film.
You’ve included a version of Begum Akhtar’s ‘Hamri atariya pe aaja re saawariya’. Purists say you’ve desecrated the original?
We always had the original version by Begum Akhtar in the film. I feel the generations that have come with me and thereafter have lost contact with India’s cultural heritage. Urdu which is such a beautiful language is all but lost. We wanted to use Begum Akhtar’s ‘Hamri atariya’ in the first Ishqiya. But there was no situation for it.
I waited to see the song ‘Dil To Bachcha Hai Ji‘ from the first Ishqiya to pop up in Dedh Ishqiya?
In fact there was a scene where we used it. But it got edited out.
Coming to the performances, Naseeruddin Shah says the lines as he owns them. Was his performance in Gulzar Saab’s Mirza Ghalib a reference point for your film?
It must have been there somewhere in the back of my mind. I think the flavour and the milieu of the film enthused Naseer Saab in the same way as Mirza Ghalib. Actually there are two Naseeruddin Shahs in DI. The roguish Khalujaan and the refined poet. It’s almost like a double role. We consciously wrote it that way.
Where are you taking the Naseer-Arshad pair next?
The buddy film has formula in cinema the world over. Somewhere I did refer to Hollywood buddy films Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. But never have we seen such an irreverent uncle-nephew jodi. It goes back to my teens when I was traveling between Lucknow and Patna by train. I was in the lower berth. A Maama and Bhanja were in the middle and upper berth. The Bhanja kept abusing the Maama throughout the journey. When I told Vishal Bhardwaj about it, we created the two protagonists. We had a lot of fun creating Khalujaan and Babban.
So a third part to the Ishqiya saga?
I think I need to make something else first. After Ishqiya, I got stuck in the third act of another script that I wanted to do. That still remains unresolved. I am working on something else. I hope I don’t make another Ishqiya for at least one more year.