Anuraj Manohar's Ishq opens with lovers talking over the phone, at night. The boy is Sachi (Shane Nigam). The girl is Vasudha (Ann Sheetal). He's ambling about his neighbourhood in Kochi. She's standing on the little balcony outside her hostel in Kottayam. It's her birthday the next day, and they are making plans. They smile a lot, and looking at them, we smile, too. At some point, Sachi sits on a bench by the side of a street. We see him from the back. In front of him lies a bunch of nondescript, middle-class houses. Beside him, there's a tree. A full moon peeks through its branches. It's possibly the most romantic shot of the year, and yet, when the title appears a little later, we get this tagline: "Not a love story."
It's not. We find this out when Sachi and Vasudha set out on a long, romantic drive the next day. The radio is romantic, too, serenading them with classics like 'Mizhiyoram' from Manjil Virinja Pookkal and the title song from Yeh Vaada Raha. Only Malayalam cinema is capable of conjuring up so much mood with so little fuss: it's just two young actors, the darkness around them, and a few film songs. In between the banter, Sachi asks for a kiss. Vasudha refuses, with a small smile. But Sachi seems to really want that kiss. After a while, he turns into a parking lot and stops. He turns to Vasudha with a knowing, sheepish, expectant grin. She grins, too. She, too,realises something's going to happen. Sure enough, once again, he asks for a kiss. This is an extraordinarily directed stretch. There's desire. There's also shyness and hesitation. She moves to the back seat. He follows. He finally gets his kiss. He makes a motion to move back up front and begin driving again, but she says let's stay a bit. We don't sense it yet, but in doing so, she has perhaps invited trouble. The woman has crossed the moral boundary prescribed by the patriarchy. By expressing her sexuality, Vasudha has invited the wrath of the gods, who are watching. After all, when Sachi drives into the parking lot, we did get a god's-eye-view of the car.
Punishment arrives in the form of a rogue cop named Alvin (Shine Tom Chacko), who shines a torch into the car and catches the lovers. An older man (Jaffer Idukki) joins the scene, and together, they indulge in a long stretch of moral policing. This is shown in excruciating detail, and it makes you squirm. Some viewers may feel it's too much, but the length is needed to make us feel every inch of Sachi's humiliation. (This is a story about manhood, so "inch" is perhaps an appropriate measure.) The actors are wonderful, especially Shane. Earlier, his most defining aspect was his goofy, open-mouthed grin, revealing teeth capped with braces. Now, he looks like he's been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson.
But this turn of mood—from romance to horror—isn't the real twist in the tale. The worst is yet to come. After the ordeal, which lasts into the early hours of morning, when Sachi drops Vasudha off at her hostel, he reminds her of the time Alvin had asked Sachi to leave the car, and moved into the back seat to "interrogate" her. Sachi asks, "What did he do to you?" He doesn't ask if she is okay, or if she wants to talk about what happened. He doesn't reassure her that this will soon be a bad memory, and they have a whole future ahead. He just wants to know what Alvin did when he was alone with Vasudha. Why? Because he is a man. He says as much: "I am a man. I need to know."
And this explains the mirror event—an equally long and agonising and squirm-inducing stretch—in the second half, where Sachi goes to Alvin's town. In a burst of irony, we see Sachi's face reflected in the glass of a Jesus picture hanging outside Alvin's house. (This picture and the fact that Alvin is a regular churchgoer are reminders that patriarchy and religion often go hand in hand.) But unlike Jesus, Sachi is not an advocate of turning the other cheek. He just wants to emasculate Alvin the way Alvin emasculated him. He barges into Alvin's home the way Alvin barged into Sachi's car. He terrorises Alvin's wife (Leona Lishoy) and daughter the way Alvin terrorised Vasudha. He waves a banana—that most phallic of fruits —in front Alvin's wife's face, which is what Alvin did to Vasudha.
You'd think he is avenging his girlfriend, but he's really avenging the loss of manliness Alvin made him feel. And Vasudha made it worse. When Sachi gives her that "I am a man. I need to know" line, she lashes back, "I didn't see any of this manhood yesterday." The sweet Sachi we knew at the film's beginning has disappeared. Rather, we realise that Sachi was "sweet" only from the outside. Inside, he's as toxic as they come. He wants to be the dick that Alvin was. The moral policing was just the trigger. The inciting incident could just as easily have been a kick in the balls. The real subject of the film is what happens after a man with a patriarchal mindset is kicked in the balls.
And just like that, Sachi's gestures from earlier acquire new meaning. We saw him go up to and threaten the man who was eyeing Vasudha at a hotel. We saw him trying to lock the car's doors when Alvin ordered him to step out. Later, when all of them are in the car and Sachi is driving, he thrusts his hand behind, like a boundary-marker between Alvin and Vasudha. But all of this may have had more to do with him than Vasudha. It may have had more to do with his being territorial, proprietorial about her rather than wanting to protect her. Had he cared about Vasudha as a person, would he have just switched off after they got back, and refused to pick up her numerous calls?
It also makes sense, now, why we know so little about Vasudha. We know she is beautiful. We know that she likes Bombay Toast. We know that she prefers to eat with her hands instead of using a fork and knife. We know she doesn't like Sachi to swear. We know she comes from a conservative family because she says her father will kill himself if he learns about her humiliation. We know these things because we see these things (as Sachi does). In other words, we only know as much about her as Sachi does, which is very little. She gets no standalone scenes, no private moments. The film never takes us into her psyche the way it takes us into Sachi's–she's a fairly invisible presence (rather, a quivering object) during Alvin's moral policing, and she's completely absent in the stretch where Sachi turns the tables on Alvin's family. And that is precisely the point of Ratheesh Ravi's screenplay. It sees Vasudha as Sachi sees her, not as a person but as a piece of ownership, with a "No Trespassing" board on it.
Ishq works well enough when you watch it, but it really deepens when you think about it later. There are superb touches, like when Sachi's car—en route to Alvin's house—gets slowed down by crowds preparing for a religious procession. (Even here, a bit of male violence erupts.) This is not an offhand incident. The huge, noisy procession plays a part in drowning out Alvin's wife's cries—another reminder of religion abetting patriarchy. But as superb as these details are, what registers is the core. What looks, at first, like Sachi's loss-of-innocence story soon becomes a horror story about the fact that even a boy so innocent-looking has such deep strains of patriarchy. At points, I was literally cowering in my seat—first due to Alvin, then due to Sachi. The ending, then, is perfect. Sachi finds Alvin didn't do anything with Vasudha. His mind is at peace. His masculinity is reclaimed. After days of shutting Vasudha off, he calls her. He gives her the ring he wanted to give her when they set out on the drive. In return, she gives him the middle finger. The fuck-you, of course, is as much to Sachi as the patriarchy he represents.