Vishal Bhardwaj first forays into adapting Shakespeare for local audiences with his critically acclaimed Maqbool. Though Hindi cinema’s romance with Shakespeare began with Do Dooni Chaar (adaptation of Comedy of Errors) in 1968, Maqbool is Hindi film industry’s first adaptation of Macbeth. By invoking the theme of Mumbai’s notorious underworld, Bhardwaj has contemporized Macbeth without diluting the complex and universal issues raised in the Shakespearean play. Using the age-old cautionary tale of unchecked ambition and its fateful consequences, Bhardwaj has created a film that works both as typical commercial gangster drama as well as thoughtful art cinema.
The noir world of Mumbai
Mumbai’s underworld has routinely been the context of many an Indian film—Nayagan (1987) in Tamil, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai [sic] (2010) in Hindi are two representative biopics of infamous men, and conveniently glamorized crime thrillers. The former takes us through the life and times of underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar. Mudaliar was a village boy who ran away to Bombay from his native Tamil Nadu. Sheer ambition and (per the film) love for the ghetto-dwelling Tamil immigrants of Bombay drove Mudaliar to smuggling. When his family is killed, he takes on the system.
The latter is apparently inspired by the life of smuggler, mildy romantic, life-respecting Haji Mastan. In the film, the protagonist (presumed to portray Mastan) is betrayed and murdered by his protégé, apparently the dreaded and ruthless terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, who is said to be the perpetrator of the Bombay bombings of 1993 that changed the security map of India.
Such films have attempted to portray the underworld as almost acceptable parts of life. Most films of that genre have drawn parallels between the underworld and the legitimate systems; hence, the conflict in those films is often between the underworld and the police, the common man or the government. Maqbool is no different in its portrayal of the underworld; yet the biggest difference is that this dark film entirely anchors its context in the underworld. Almost the only view of the “above-world” we see is in the final sequence when Maqbool is at the hospital to sneak a glimpse at this paramour. Ironically, that is the final sequence for his life, almost as though he (deliberately) throws the security of his underworld sneakiness to the winds and pays the price.
By including elements of mistrust, loss of innocence, forlornness and paranoia, Bhardwaj—predictably—categorizes Maqbool into the noir genre. The film echoes the cynical attitude and criminal motives that are typical of a film noir. Right from the beginning, the viewer is made aware of the doomed romance and the desperate desire. Corrupt cops and government agents play a major role in ensuring the rule of the gangsters. Dim lighting and slow pace of editing ensure the dark languor that the director intends. Symbolism is replete-sometimes forced, as in the case of a kundli, or the drawing of a horoscope, that is splattered by blood in the very first scene, serving as an exposition for the bloody future of Mumbai’s underworld.
Shakespeare’s three ‘weird sisters’ change to two corrupt policemen in the movie. The two policemen effectively play the role of soothsayer and a comic relief. Through the recurring use kundli motifs, the two cops also act as expositors of the movie, often predicting the events that occur in the unfolding drama. They create a sense of mystery and foreboding that is typical of a film noir. By portraying them as sidekicks to the gangsters, Bhardwaj makes a social commentary on the corruption that is prevalent in India.
The centrality of emotion
A prominent departure from Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the character of Nimmi in Maqbool. The change from being Lady Macbeth to being Abba-ji’s mistress gives Maqbool an additional reason for killing his father-like mentor. Maqbool’s lust for Nimmi gives the murder the dimension of passion crime, thereby expanding the dimensions of Maqbool’s tragic flaw of unbridles ambition to include jealousy.
However, the character of Nimmi remains faithful to the Bard, as strong-willed, cunning, amoral, sexually demanding and scheming. As with femme fatales of tragic drama she is the cause of the hero’s downfall and her own destruction. Nimmi and Maqbool are caught in the web of ambition as well as sexual motivation. His resentment at the idea of having to work under Guddu, who would become the heir to the gang after his marriage to Abba-ji’s only daughter, gives him another motive to murder Abba-ji. Somewhat in alignment with many other artifacts of the Shakespearean genre, the emotions of love and affection give way to acts of crime in the ‘larger interest’ of maintenance of order. However, in Bhardwaj’s version, emotion (sexual jealousy) is itself a factor, and this is a departure from the original. In a typical noir plot—as in Shakespeare—emotion is a garb, a mere camouflage for underlying conspiracy. In Maqbool, therefore, the factor of emotion takes on the centrality that popular Hindi cinema is accustomed to.
The unspoken conflict
Maqbool, as much an Aristotelian as a Shakespearean tragic figure and a king as much as a commoner, arouses sympathy. His tragic tension is visible when he fluctuates between absolute pessimism and moments of terrible guilt of the unspeakable crime—so unspeakable, it seems, that it is rarely spoken of even between Maqbool and Nimmi. As with Shakespearean protagonists, Maqbool is torn between the moral and the social, falling plop into the grey area between good and evil, right and wrong. The conflict between the wrong deeds and the right reasons is a Shakespearean favourite. That nuance seems lost on Bhardwaj though, as Maqbool, conflicted and tortured after shooting Abba-ji in a stupor-like stance, lives to regret it. His downslide begins even before he shoots Abba-ji, with the killing of the goats for the biryani. His visions of blood point to the guilt within him. Bhardwaj has managed to make the viewers sympathize with Maqbool till the end, making him the classic anti-hero.
Bhardwaj shines with astonishing regularity through his corpus of work in his ability to draw contemporaneous allegories. Despite drawing freely from commercial Indian gangster movies, Maqbool remains true to the original Shakespearean plot. The biggest irony in this underworld story-often glamorized in Indian cinema-is a parallel Bhardwaj draws between the (legitimate) state of Scotland and the illicit, dark world of Abba-ji’s and Maqbool’s Mumbai, where the wars for territory and money are almost farcically similar to those in a civilized kingdom.