If Shakespeare’s works are the epitome of English literature, then Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool is the epitome of adaptive cinema. Based on Macbeth, Maqbool is arguably the best adaptation of a Shakespearean play ever; it enraptures the essence of the original in a blanket of innovation, intelligence, and integrity. Vishal Bhardwaj congregates the best of Bollywood to enact his astonishing vision of the bleak tragedy. If alive today, Shakespeare would be proud to know that his Macbeth is the foundation of the greatest cinematic masterpiece from India in many years.
Maqbool (Irfan Khan) is the right hand man of Jaahangir Khan, a.k.a Abbaji (Punkaj Kapoor). Pundit and Purohit (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, respectively) are corrupt cops, of which Pundit is an astrologer with a kali zubaan; everything he predicts come true. He predicts that Maqbool will the successor of Abbaji. This prediction gradually injects a lust for power within Maqbool.
However, Maqbool harbors lust–and love–for Nimmi (Tabu). Nimmi is Abbaji’s mistress, who also loves Maqbool. She wants to be released from the stigma of being a mistress, and believes that only Maqbool can grant her the social respect that comes with marriage. She repeatedly hints the death of Abbaji to Maqbool, and also warns Maqbool of the relationship between Sameera (Masumi Makhija), Abbaji’s daughter, and Guddu (Ajay Gehi) who is the son of Maqbool’s best friend, Kaka (Piyush Mishra), "kyonki agar beta na ho, to damaad hi waaris hota hai". Eventually, Nimmi is able to convince Maqbool to murder Abbaji, and crown himself the new leader of the gang.
Upon Maqbool’s takeover, the underworld begins to fall apart. Everyone involved with the gang suspects Nimmi and Maqbool to be at the forefronts of Abbaji’s murder; Kaka even dissociates himself from the gang. Furthermore, Maqbool becomes buried in debt. Are he an Nimmi able to restore the gang’s power and glory for which they betrayed the world?
Firstly, it must be made clear that Maqbool is cinematic gold, and can be appreciated anyone, regardless how familiar one is with Macbeth. However, those who have been exposed to the play will feel an appreciation that goes beyond a ten-point scale. The ease with which transformation of the post-Elizabethan era to the underworld of Mumbai is conducted leaves one awe-inspired. Bhardwaj brilliantly multi-tasks through the movie as a writer, music director and the director of the film. His screenplay (co-written by Abbas Tyrewala) presents a plot that is more complex than the one presented by Shakespeare, but is still easy to understand.
The strong narrative highlights the keys to film making: maintain focus and keep subplots that further the main story, and, if adapting, incorporate your own imagination. There are no hackneyed Johnny Lever-type comedic (!) sequences nor is there a saturation of stories that leaves one confused; nothing happens unless it’s meaningful to the main plot. Also, Bhardwaj and Tyrewala make their own alterations, especially with characters. The addition of the Sameera-Guddu romance works well in creating a solid difference between Maqbool and Macbeth. Also, making Nimmi (equivalent to Lady Macbeth) Abbaji’s mistress sufficiently increases her wicked and manipulative nature. Maqbool’s dialogues are simply outstanding. Bhardwaj’s way with words is a real delight, as everything from Pundit and Purohit’s conversations, to Nimmi’s taunting of Maqbool, is praiseworthy. Despite the ingenious omissions of many soliloquies, the weight of the words remains intact.
As a music director, Vishal allows himself to relax on his soundtrack, which is good, but nothing compared to his previous efforts. It is his background score that is really rivetting. Despite a slight inspiration from Pyaar Tune Kyaa Kiya, the score remains haunting and is prefect in establishing the atmosphere of the movie. Finally, it is as a director that Bhardwaj shines the most. His use of colors, light, music, and patterns (especially in regard to Pundit’s kundali designs) shows that he is a man of immense sophistication, and not an amateur like many veterans (and I use this term lightly) of the industry who still adhere to clichéd film making. The idea of giving the film a jaded look works in favor of the project, reflecting the jaded natures of the principle roles. Vishal Bhardwaj has one talent that few directors do, and that is knowing where to put a song. Moreover, he uses the songs to establish relationships between characters, like Nimmi and Sameera.
The efforts and skills of the director are echoed by the performances of the cast. Even the supporting cast seems enthusiastic about the film, which shows in the superb acting done by Piyush Mishra and Ajay Gehi. Masumi Makhija exhibits more talent in her six-scenes in Maqbool, than her debut role in Chupke Se... was the lead!). Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah share an amazing chemistry. As the astrologer, Om Puri gets the better role, but Shah matched him step for step. They avoid overacting, which could easily have been done by those of lesser skill. They may not be as prominent in the events of the movie, but they make their presences felt with every second they get, living up to their well-deserving reputations.
As the title character, Irfan Khan solidifies the praise he’s been receiving since Haasil. He oozes the correct levels of vulnerability and passion, and watching his character react to the highs and lows of his life keep you gripped to the screen. He out does all of his previous performances and excels in a role that isn’t completely negative.
Tabu shines in a dark role. The most versatile actress in Bollywood takes to villainy like a second nature. She is menacing and seductive, but keeps an innocent look on her face, making her even viler. The way Tabu delivers her taunts simply perfect. Her gradual insanity is heart-wrenching and her final outburst is easily the highlight of the film.
Despite his demise half-way through the film, Punkaj Kapoor manages to run away with the best performance. Kapoor redefines the Indian gang lord, and surpasses all previous attempts at such a role. As the short, pot-bellied Abbaji, the actor within Punkaj Kapoor comes alive. His facial expressions make you love and hate him appropriately. His voice modulations, walk, mannerisms–everything about him makes you feel that you are watching Abbaji, and not Punkaj Kapoor. Bravo!
There is no possible summary for Maqbool that will do the film justice. Had this been a Hollywood movie, it would have the word "Oscar" all over it. To say the least, every era has a film that defines the standards for its most popular genre of film. In this era of adaptations (most of which are sick copies), Maqbool is the standard to defeat. Watch a real movie. Watch Maqbool.