Bollywood Bard: Macbeth in the Mumbai Mafia

The Bard Goes Global takes Shakespeare to India with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, an innovative rendition of Macbeth that reveals the riveting and unlikely connections between the dramatic traditions of one culture and another. The classic elements of Indian cinema – surges of emotional music, dialogue laden with drama, sweeping musical numbers – lend themselves with a natural ease in Bharadwaj’s hands to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The tale moves from the hills of Scotland to the gritty and ubiquitous underworld of contemporary Mumbai, where the hierarchy of power is not that of kings but a complex chain of command based on sustained loyalty, crime, and legacies of bloodshed.  Irfan Khan (The Namesake) plays the brooding Miyan Maqbool, an orphan adopted by the powerful Don Abba Ji (Pankaj Kapoor) toward whom he feels unflinching love and loyalty. Abba Ji’s mistress, Nimmi, played by the ever-elegant Tabu (Also The Namesake, as well as countless other Indian films), takes the place of Lady Macbeth, seducing Maqbool and convincing him to murder Abba Ji and take his place as Don in order to stop hiding their illicit affair.

The Elizabethan concern with fate and the stars is mirrored by the Hindu astrological charts drawn by corrupt, guffawing police inspectors (Naseruddin Shah, Om Puri) who spell Maqbool’s fate for him as the next in the line of power, foreshadowing treacherous ambitions planted by Nimmi. Religion and crime interplay as the increasingly violent state of affairs volley us between dargahs, weddings, and funerals.

As the terrible string of murders escalates into a harrowing bloodbath, the relationships, sullied and turned ,are surprisingly nuanced, most striking in the scene that reveals the budding of Maqbool and Nimmi’s love affair where he attempts to wipe her tears with the lip of a gun over a moving musical overture. The gradual overtaking of evil in the otherwise steadfast Maqbool incites a similar foreboding in the viewer, particularly when guilt first begins to infect the tragic hero as he continues to see pools of fresh blood spread over the floors after a ritualistic slaughter, long after it is swept away.

Almost more poetic than Bharadwaj’s imaginative power were the career performances elicited from his actors. Irfan Khan’s haunted countenance beautifully reflected his doom. Naseruddin Shah and Om Puri’s performances as darkly funny, cackling lackies flood each scene with ominous intention.

Most strikingly, Tabu gives a characteristically brilliant performance as a deeply sensual temptress with a taste for dangerous games. The mischief in the character and the fear she elicits makes Nimmi, like Lady Macbeth, the most sinister character, but it is Tabu’s performance of her tumble into insanity that ultimately highlights the complex matrices of emotion, born of games of love and war. Her fall is most striking as she pulls herself from the bed of her and Maqbool’s love nest in a post-partum craze, attempting to wash from the walls of the blood she is unable to rid from her hands.

Maqbool accepts his fate sitting, beaten by the stars, against the wall of his bedroom holding his dying wife in his arms. Striken by their crimes, Nimmi asks, “Was our love, at least, not pure?” With this masterful film, Bharadwaj portrays the fragility of the complicated networks of power and the extremes people are willing to go for greed and desire as they exist in Shakespearean tragedy, as also in Mumbai noir, by painting a world where life is cheap, blood is cheaper, and love can only be the seed for evil, let alone a match for it.

-Ashna Ali

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