The exhilarating “Dedh Ishqiya” is the young writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s worthy sequel to one of the sharpest Bollywood comedies of recent years. In contrast to the usual clobbering slapstick, Chaubey’s 2010 “Ishqiya” was more like a droll mid-period Elmore Leonard tale transplanted to India. The gloriously gifted comic actors Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi were a squabbling uncle-and-nephew team of only moderately gifted thieves, handed a sobering lesson in the realities of life and love by a seductive widow (Vidya Balan). This second installment is less astringent. In fact, it has the structure of a fairy tale, the kind in which suitors from across a kingdom vie for the hand of a princess in marriage.
The first film’s view of romance was not so much cynical as deeply wised up. All three characters had a hard time saying no, and after some turmoil they came to accept this about themselves, and about each other. The movie had a light touch because Chaubey was tolerant of common human failings. Balan’s commanding Krishna Verma, who slept with both men, was never denounced in sexist terms for being as susceptible as they were. (The title, “Ishqiya,” derived from “Ishq, “the Urdu word for romantic passion, refers to to state of being drunk on a lover’s charms, unable to help yourself. “Dedh” has been translated as “one-and-a-half times” or “half again.”)
In the sequel, Shah’s character, Iftikar Hussain (“Khalu” for short), is an inveterate schemer whose latest project involves impersonating a Nawab, a hereditary local ruler in the Muslim Mughal Empire’s feudal aristocracy. (The title carries no political power today, but implies the ownership of a big and drafty old palace whose utility bills the owner can ill afford. Many of them have been turned into tourist-trap museums.) The widowed wife of a nearby Nawab, Begum Para, has announced a poetry contest, the winner to be installed as her new husband. Khalu, with his romantic spirit and verbal gifts, has no doubt he can sweep the Begum off her feet.
Ishq, of course, intervenes, and Khalu finds himself enraptured for real by the beautiful Begum, played by one of Bollywood’s great stars of the 1980s and ’90s, Madhuri Dixit. The road to love and solvency is not smooth. Khalu has a strong rival among the contestants, a saturnine gold-digger with graying rock star hair (Vijay Raaz), and behind the scenes some suspense is generated by a kidnap plot: As soon as the Begum is married, she will be grabbed and held for ransom.
As in the first “Ishqiya,” the wonderful actors carry much of the weight. Shah, acting his age and showing off a puffy halo of white hair, does a beautiful job with the ceremonial poetry recitations. But he truly earns his keep in the scenes in which his only assignment is to gaze adoringly at Dixit. He invests those longing looks with a lifetime of romantic aspiration. (In addition to being a world-class stage actor, Shah played Captain Nemo in the misbegotten “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and the father of the bride in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding.”)
“Dedh Ishqiya” ends on a note of sadder-but-wiser resignation that recalls its predecessor, but its high romantic cultural allusions convey a deeper sense of what’s at stake. The film was produced by the writer-director-composer Vishal Bhardwaj, whose own films include the admired “Omkara” (2006), a Hindi redo of “Othello” set among rural bandits. With the help of Dixit’s swirly dancing and the songs Bhardwaj has written (with lyrics by the classically minded Gulzar), Chaubey glancingly alludes to Indian classical traditions that have been all but forgotten by mainstream Bollywood.
Which is not to suggest that it’s all poetry readings and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan recitals. The movie’s structure has a class-conscious, stratified view of different styles of romance. When Warsi’s ne’er-do-well nephew Babban takes up with the Begum’s curvy right-hand woman, Minniya (Huma Quereshi), the tone gets much more frankly carnal. When he pulls a knife on her she growls, “Cut me,” a line that’s straight out of James M. Cain.