With Dedh Ishqiya, director Abhishek Chaubey has cracked a tricky formula of marrying a masala film with chaste Urdu culture. He tells Kareena N Gianani why the film never loses the plot when it comes to the attitude he wanted the film to carry
You’ve maintained that you did not make Ishqiya with the intention of taking it ahead as a sequel, and the decision was nerve wracking. When, then, during the making of Dedh Ishqiya did you feel that you had a fine film at hand?
I think it happened sometime in the scripting stage. I remember working on it with Vishal Bhardwaj and having a moment when it hit me. I thought, ‘Hey , so I am not simply making a sequel, I have something original in hand now.’
This epiphany had something to do with the fact we were creating an alternate world of Mahmoodabad in Dedh Ishqiya. For a director, there is nothing more exhilarating than having the liberty to create an alternate reality, craft new characters and explore a lost culture, a time warp.
Director Abhishek Chaubey with Madhuri Dixit on the sets of Dedh Ishqiya
Tell us about creating the alternate world of Mahmoodabad, its codes and its attitude.
I was really charmed by the location and the decrepit palace we were shooting at. Ishqiya was a more intimate film. There were these obtuse references to the jungle and a war, but the film was shot in a house with mainly three characters. We went all out in Dedh Ishqiya, and, at the end of it all, making this film was more wholesome.
The world of Mahmoodabad stands on the chaste Urdu we decided to use in the film. The credit for that goes entirely to Vishal. He has grown up with that language and culture, and he loved that kind of poetry. A few years ago, he introduced me to Dr Bashir Badr (whose poetry has been used in Dedh Ishqiya) and I was hooked.
Dedh Ishqiya is our way of paying homage to his work.
When you create an alternate world, I think the most exciting part is to create its code, its dos and don’ts. I knew I wanted the world of Mahmoodabad to be entertaining but not vacuous. Before being anything else, Dedh Ishqiya is a comedy, and I knew exactly the attitude I wanted the actors to carry — quick wit, care-a-damn-attitude and willing to make light of the most serious things. For instance, when Babban (Arshad Warsi) is chasing Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) after the latter swindles him, and finally catches up with him, he first greets him with all the tehzeeb. Khalu, too, who knows he is going to be questioned, returns the greeting. That’s the spirit of Dedh Ishqiya, tongue-in-cheek; that’s how the characters see the world.
... As compared to the slapstick comedies, which go on to make it to the R100-200 crore clubs?
(Laughs) Sab ke sau crore sab ko mubarak hon.
Did you think Naseeruddin Shah was best suited for the role because he has experimented with a similar culture in his plays? And what about Madhuri Dixit?
Dedh Ishqiya is my fourth film with Naseer, and I think we are at a stage where we understand each other without even trying. He thrived on the sets because he was playing these two different kinds of characters — Khalujaan, the rogue and Iftekhaar, the nawab. He was simply having a ball and I have never seen him this focussed and excited.
As far as Madhuri goes, I so desperately wanted her to agree to do this film, because she was the only person I could see essaying Begum Para’s role. I observed that she is a very relaxed actor. In spite of the work she has behind her, she is still the sort of actor who wants a director to step in and fill her in on the character’s shades. However, she’s also very instinctive — so if you tell her to do something that she thinks might look fake on screen, she’ll tell you that. I think what amazes me the most about Madhuri is that she does not theorise and is very subtle at her craft. Many a time, I’d think she was being too subtle and might miss the point, but later, when I saw it on screen, I realised she knew just what she was doing by putting in just the perfect amount of emphasis on her expression or style. I don’t think too many actors can boast of that.
The supporting cast in Dedh Ishqiya — Vijay Raaz, Manoj Pahwa and Salim Shahid — were equally well-etched, irrespective of the screen time they may have had.
I am glad that came across, then (smiles). I think the writing did it, again. They don’t have three hours to tell their stories and their motivations, but the writer must, at all cost. You don’t want to fall flat when a supporting actor looks at you and doesn’t understand why he is doing something in the film. He must know it in his head, even if he doesn’t spell it out
What’s next for you?
I am working on another script, but it would be too premature to discuss what it is about. But it will be entirely different from Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya, in every way possible.
What do you want to do better, then?
Improve my strike rate, for one!