‘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 the characters are in each other’s orbit (and, of course, to mine the beloved and tried and tested two-friends-in-love-with-same-man scenario for maximum drama). Bollywood has paid homage to friendship over and over again, but these are mostly paeans to epic brotherhood. From Sholay to Dil Chahta Hai to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the “bromance” seems to be the only kind of platonic relationship mainstream Hindi films deem worthy of exploring.
On the odd occasion that female friendship amounts to anything more than a throwaway line, women on celluloid tend to be friends only until competition over male attention either drives a wedge between them, or until one retreats from a romance to bequeath her love interest upon the other, nevermind what the lover-as-object or duped best friend might have to say. Consider the Preity Zinta-Mahima Chaudhry starrer Dil Hai Tumhara or Mujhse Dosti Karoge with Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukherji. In both movies, the strength of the friendship between the women — with an added familial tie in Dil Hai Tumhara — is tested only to check if one or both of them will embrace the imagined “womanly” virtue of sacrifice by giving up her lover for the supposed happiness of her best friend. Conversation between the concerned friends is usually facile and superficial — we are told that the women share “everything” with each other; yet, they rarely share their aspirations or emotions at any length. Most Bollywood cinema would probably fail the Bechdel test, which asks whether a piece of fiction features, at minimum, two women who have a conversation about something other than a man. In popular Hindi cinema, it’s rare to find women talking to each other at all, and to expect them to discuss anything other than a man is simply unrealistic.
So, in a barren cinematic landscape which entirely ignores the variety in female friendship roles, a Dedh Ishqiya is quietly groundbreaking. Para and Munniya share an emotionally intense personal connection. Their scenes with each other exude a palpable sense of nurturance and intimacy. Dedh Ishqiya supports their sense of self-worth, personal development and autonomy while subtly critiquing male dominance and patriarchal marriage. For a movie ostensibly about the exploits of two men, it is surprisingly devoted to exploring the possibilities inherent in female relationships.