Habib Faisal's Ishaqzaade is another sordid chapter in the systematic subjugation of the Hindi film heroine. The harder she tries to rise above the suffocating confines of patriarchy, the severer her punishment as Zoya (Parineeti Chopra), the feisty protagonist learns to her peril. For the first half of the film, she is a fighter, a spunky college topper undaunted by the disadvantage of her birth -- born to a traditional Muslim family with political clout in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, surrounded by gun-totting brothers and an entire town full of petty goons and passive bystanders, none of whom cares much about the plight of women, leave alone upholding or nurturing an ambitious girl.
Zoya doesn't pay obeisance to the male order although she loves her father to a fault. Her brothers are intimidated by her confidence which they obviously lack unless backed by the power of a loaded gun. She, on the other hand, doesn't bat an eyelid when the hero (?) puts a gun to her head and dares him to shoot her instead, before slapping him in public and walking off nonchalantly. Earlier she has traded her gold earrings to buy a pistol, knowing that she'll need it much more than mere ornaments, to survive in the murky world of political chicanery -- she hopes to become an MLA some day, just like her father who is now struggling to hold on to his seat. She is upset when he goes to file his nomination papers without her and campaigns for him, making impassioned speeches to garner votes.
Contrast this character with the man she's pitted against. Parma (Arjun Kapoor), who belongs to the rival political family, the Chauhans, is an academic failure, shows scant respect for anyone except his mother, relies on intimidation and political clout to get his way, has no purpose to his life, and seems entirely lacking in basic human decency. Yet his mother loves him, a local prostitute adores him (even though he drags her away from a party at gun point and puts her life at risk more than once) and eventually, the heroine of otherwise sound mind, inexplicably falls for him.
Thus the first stereotype of popular cinema plays itself out. The smartest of women are liable to love ruffians like Parma because they secretly crave men who live on the edge and flaunt their virility at every step. They like being dominated and those who are too free-spirited for their own good, require to be tamed. Zoya unfortunately follows her heart, while Parma stays true to character and manipulates and uses her for his cause.
Still, up to this point both characters are reasonably authentic (notwithstanding Zoya's attraction to him). But what follows in the second half is shocking and depressing. A couple of reviews have compared Ishaqzaade to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, another saga of teenage love crushed by the forces of patriarchy and family rivalries. But to equate Zoya's suppression to Rashmi's (Juhi Chawla) is erroneous. Unlike Zoya, Rashmi is a wholly uninteresting character who has never questioned or tried to rise above her birth and her single act of assertion or rebellion in the entire film is to run away with Raj (Aamir Khan). In fact, she fits the stereotype of the dumb damsel in distress whom the hero rescues from a bunch of goons and wins over with his good looks and innocent charm.
Zoya, on the other hand, is already hardened by life and seems entirely capable of living on her own terms -- she has told her father that she doesn't think it's necessary to get married at all unless she meets her match. Then, she is suddenly pushed into a corner and left with nowhere to hide. She escapes from home to confront her oppressor and runs into his mother instead, who lectures her about how, if she ever really loved the man, she should do her damnest to win him back.
Without giving out spoilers, suffice to say that what he has done to her is in fact, unpardonable, unless measured by the twisted logic of Hindi film jurisprudence. The filmmaker wants her to forgive him and conventional thinking dictates it's okay to pardon one's oppressor if his plea for forgiveness is earnest enough -- we have a tradition of heroes wooing heroines by teasing, heckling, stalking and coercing them and the heroines inevitably falling for their charms and forgetting the humiliation, often, within the span of a three-minute song!
Here, the heroine must run, she must suffer rejection by those she loved and trusted implicitly (because izzat is always greater than love). She must have no one to call her own except the hero (who remains alarmingly immature till the end) and even though she continues fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve herself and doesn't lose her innate compassion and intuition in the process, she must ultimately be sacrificed for daring to be defiant. She must pay the price for her audacity and her confidence. She must not be allowed to dream because her quest for fulfillment threatens the very foundation of the patriarchal order -- although by marrying her destiny with a loser, the filmmaker has already compromised her irreparably.
Faisal's film, like many others in the genre, is perhaps showing us a mirror to reality (often such tales of excessive violence, brutality and debasement are accompanied by title cards bearing sombre statistical testimony to their veracity). He has a knack for creating atmosphere through authentic backdrop and dialogue. But by trodding the beaten track, he shows himself lacking in imagination and foresight -- a malaise that threatens to plague the depiction of women on the Hindi screen for a long time to come.