There is a moment in Abhishek Chaubey's Dedh Ishqiya where Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) almost breaks the fourth wall. It's when Khalu's hapless, impulsive nephew Babban (Arshad Warsi) tries to pull him into a rigged kidnapping plot. The expression on Khalu's face seems to say, "Seriously, another sham kidnapping? Didn't you see the first movie?"
An almost definitional element of the archetype of the lovable criminal is that he must be dumb as a box of hair. Here, as in Ishqiya, Khalu has slightly more sense than his half-cocked nephew, but even so, he doesn't seem to have fully learned from his mistakes. A con that begins for Khalu as a pretense of intellect, breeding, and charm once again becomes a fantasy so seductive to him that he starts to con himself. Mysterious, beautiful, sad-eyed women are still not what they appear. There is a reason this movie is called Ishqiya one-and-a-half, and not Ishqiya 2 - it's not enough of a departure from the first chapter to merit an entire unit increment.
That's not a bad thing, though, especially when it's part of the point. The two movies together become a sort of song cycle that conveys something about Khalu and Babban's characters that either alone does not: There is a mythological cyclicality to their story, a quality of inevitability. Their weakness for romance, the tenderness that foils their plans again and again, is what makes them terrible crooks, and it also what redeems them, what makes them the good guys and makes villains out of guys like the leering, preening, greedy Jaan Muhammad (Vijay Raaz).
I've come pretty far into this review without talking about the things you likely expected me to lead with. Dedh Ishqiya is in some ways a movie I have waited all my life for, with its powerful middle-aged heroine and arguably lesbian relationship. And yet when I sat down to write about the movie, these elements didn't resolve in the foreground. They are not what Dedh Ishqiya is about. Madhuri Dixit is marvelous as Begum Para, grave and beautiful, wearing her sadness like a chunari, but she is incidental. Her backstory is filled in sketchily at best, and mostly through hasty exposition at the film's conclusion. Her sorrows are cartoon outlines. The script doesn't reveal why she gave up dance, only that she did. What we learn of her husband's antics is trite, and fails to explain the evident thoroughness of her wounds. Begum Para is a prop, just as her mushaira is a plot contrivance. Both exist to generate a story about Khalu.
Begum Para's relationship with Muniya (Huma Qureshi) is deliberately ambiguous. Enough - or little enough - is shown to maintain plausible deniability about whether the relationship is sexual; we are free to interpret it however we like. Begum Para herself acknowledges that the relationship is ambiguous to its core - sister, friend, soulmate. She does not say lover. The ambiguity does not make the relationship fundamentally unsatisfying. To the contrary, it is pleasing that these two women go to such great lengths to preserve a connection that only they understand, one that is not taxonomized or laid bare to the judgments and assessments of the male gaze.
On balance, of course, Dedh Ishqiya is a fantastically entertaining movie, every bit as wry, silly, smart, sweet, and visually supple as its predecessor, with a generous helping of poetry and of course, Madhuri dancing a mujra. It meets the high expectations I and many others had for it. There's not much more one can ask from a movie.