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‘Dedh Ishqiya’ is groundbreaking in the way it frames female friendship.
Beyond the characters of Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah), the loveable rogues whose adventures drive the narratives of both of Abhishek Chaubey’s hinterland black comedies, the thematic thread that binds the two Ishqiya films together is the subtle (for Bollywood) examination of female desire and sexuality. Specifically, both Krishna (played by Vidya Balan) in Ishqiya and Munniya (Huma Qureshi) in the sequel are unapologetic about exploiting sexual intimacy to manipulate men into doing their bidding, and are evidently well capable of separating sex and love (even if the male patsy is not). This isn’t exactly revolutionary — after all, the noirish femme fatale is a cherished trope in popular culture of all stripes — but it is notable if only for the fact that the two women go pretty much unpunished for their alleged betrayals of the purported male lead. In Bollywood, it remains progressive for the narrative to categorise a woman with a sexual appetite as anything other than vamp; it is rarer still for such transgressive female characters to not repent or go otherwise unpunished by the narrative by losing their lives, lovers, or both.
In Dedh Ishqiya, though, the overt assertion of female sexuality masks an even more radical impulse: that of female friendship. The movie alludes to a relationship of a more romantic and possibly sexual nature between Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her companion, Munniya, but their dynamic is remarkable even in its chastest interpretation. Lovers or not, Para and Munniya are clearly partners and confidants, much more invested in each other than in their respective male suitors, Khalujan and Babban. Dedh Ishqiya lets the two scheme and plot and even use the men vying for their attention to finally ride off into the sunset in a battered old Maruti together, subverting that most sacred of Bollywood’s unwritten narrative norms: that the hero always gets the girl, who will ultimately be convinced of his awesomeness, no matter how vociferously she objects at the outset. So, for two women, and especially two duplicitous women, to prioritise their relationship with each other above all else and never apologise for it is a pretty major departure.
This celebration of female friendship is disruptive in a cinematic history that, apart from the odd Dor or Lajja, tends to gloss over its very existence. When the on-screen relationships between women aren’t familial, they remain notional. Rarely will audiences see women spend time together as friends; female friendships are routinely reduced to expository detail, important only insofar as it explains why continued…