Pakeezah (1972) was probably the pinnacle of this genre and Guru Dutt’s Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) its most aesthetically pleasing. The nawabi culture of Lucknow and the poetic use of Urdu make for a perfect setting. So a similar ambience is created for Dedh Ishqiya in Mahmudabad, where the widowed Begum of this town is setting a grand mushaira. The best poet at the gathering will win the hand of the Begum (Madhuri Dixit) and will become the next Nawab.
Naturally, there are fake poets, and there is, of course, fake royalty galore, the most entertaining being old Khalujan, now posing as the ‘Nawab of Chandpur’. The other is a gangster called Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz) who has developed a unique method of circumventing ‘writer’s block’. He kidnaps the one and only genuine poet in the vicinity and recites his lines, faltering hilariously when asked to explain the more elusive metaphors used.
Funny as the film is, a serious undertone is introduced in the persona of the Begum. This comes through when she talks about her late husband, the Nawab of Mahmudabad, and how she was trapped in a sexless marriage with a man who was gay and kept her as furniture for his home. Clearly, this is a reference to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, and in that classic story, ‘Begum Jan’ finds escape in her own relationship with a maidservant called ‘Rabbu’. So too in Dedh Ishqiya. Here Muniya ( Huma Qureshi) plays the role of companion and lover.
In short, this is a well-acted comedy that is both funny and touching. Theoretically, that combination shouldn’t work, but it does. Kudos to Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi.