Ishq (Movie review) – Malayalam, Anuraj Manohar

Ishq is perhaps the most infuriating movie I have seen in quite a while. And this is mainly because the film topples, on its head, 2 well-known movie tropes – vigilante justice and home invasion.

I missed it when it was in theaters – I reserve my theater experience to larger-than-life films, and indulge in so-called smaller films at the comfort of my home, on one of the many OTT platforms that thankfully offer them with English subtitles.

So Ishq, on Amazon Prime.

Considering I recently watched Kumbalangi Nights on the same platform, I couldn’t help marvel at the connection between the two:

Shane Nigam as Bobby, in that film, shouts, “I am a man!”, when Baby (played by Anna Ben) refuses to kiss him in the cinema theater.

Shane Nigam as Sachi, in this film, growls, “I am a man. I need to know”, after what he and Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) have endured the previous night.

(Should I also connect, Rangan-style, the first names of both actresses – Anna and Ann? Nah.)

To me, Ishq was perhaps the most refreshing and intimate take on the vigilante justice trope Indian cinema is usually obsessed with forever.

It is to the film’ credit that I couldn’t watch it without squirming when two of its biggest, most impactful stretches were playing. I felt like a pervert watching those two stretches and I have to accept that it makes for a riveting watch – something you don’t want to see, but still persist, with your mouth agape and mind numb, hoping/praying for the best.

But, Ishq is also 10X more problematic than an Arjun Reddy. Arjun was propped with a lot of hero’ness – he is not real, but aspirational (unfortunately so). But he is a make-believe in the way they stretch his actions into something utterly incredulous. Sachi, in comparison, is the boy next door – sheepish smile, and utterly normal. When he decides to turn vigilante and avenge the insult to his manhood (and not for the harrowing experience of his girlfriend, which had already been sidestepped when he didn’t react to that at all after the ordeal, something Vasudha points out to him too, categorically), he empowers every boy-next-door to believe that this is a possibility.

In that alarmingly realistic scenario comes the equally alarming and intimate focus on something very few vigilante justice films ever venture into – a focus on the collateral damage. Alvin’s wife and little daughter are the collateral damage I’m referring to. And here, the home invasion trope is turned upside down because of who performs the act!

Even here, the details would make you squirm merely thinking about them: In the first ordeal, you knew that the perpetrators were obviously and visibly ‘bad’. They mean bad and behave horrendously. The film could have gone into a tailspin and really bad things could have happened otherwise ‘good people. But, you heave a sigh of relief that the film doesn’t take it to that extreme, even as the trauma that the good people are left with is going to last a lifetime because of what was not done and merely hinted at.

But, in the second ordeal, you are aghast that the perpetrator is not a conventionally ‘bad’ person. And he does heinous things to two good people, one of them being a little child. You probably know in the back of your heart that he won’t resort to any extreme (unlike the earlier episode where anything was possible), though he does cross several boundaries in his quest for revenge. It’s the inherent evil within a supposedly good person that is the ultimate horror in Ishq. The level of evil that has him hounding two people only because they happened to be connected to his target of revenge.

Hence, it was a relief the way the film ended, even though that denouement is hardly representative of the crime he has perpetrated. But two things stand out in this ending – that Vasudha didn’t turn vigilante on Sachi and offer an extreme punishment and merely did what was in her purview. And two, this is what Arjun Reddy’s Preethi should have done, though that’s hardly representative of Arjun’s misdeeds.

Shane is perhaps overdoing his goofy, boy-next-door gig (considering I saw Kumbalangi Nights last week), but he is incredibly effective in Ishq in selling first his boy-next-door, and his tentative-in-love and eventually his man out for vengeance. Shine Tom Chacko, playing Alvin, is stupendously good. That he disgusts you incredibly is the power of his role and acting, while Jaffer Idukki, as his co-perpetrator, brings an enormous amount of sliminess to his role.

Ann Sheetal is a revelation. The range of expressions she brings to the role – while madly in love, while tentatively agreeing to what Sachi asks her to do, while not giving in fully, yet in a surprise gesture, moving to the back seat of the car as her own minute way to offer her consent and express her desire, while fearing for her self and for Sachi during her ordeal, while expressing shock at Sachi’s behaviour post the ordeal and the placid Vasudha during the final stretch! Along with Leona Lishoy (as Alvin’s wife), the 2 actresses are outstanding in making us fear for them, feel for them and quite literally, pray for them.

A special note to the cinematography. The choice of angles to highlight the way Sachi’s car enters the desolate parking zone is brilliant, and the home invasion scenes in the second ordeal are incredibly real. Jakes Bejoy’s music is minimal, and Parayuvaan is an easy highlight, thanks to Sid Sriram’s singing. Some of the editor’s and composer’s choices are questionable – like the framing of the end of the second ordeal, almost making it right, together with pumping background music.

But Ishq is that kind of film that you simply cannot not think about and not have an opinion about. That is remarkably good cinema. This one questions moral ambiguity in multiple directions – the ‘good’ characters’ in the film, the director’s, and your own, for persisting with the perversion on display.