Point the Next One: Our favorite plays by the Bard are Macbeth (for tragedy) and Much Ado About Nothing (for comedy). Our favorite screen adaptations are Akira Kurosawa's Ran for images and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V for words.
Point the Third: We love it when Bollywood meets Shakespeare. King Lear, anyone?
Point the Point: We have now added Maqbool, Vishal Bharadwaj's Bollyartsy interpretation of Macbeth, as one of our favorite screen adaptations. We have also now decided that Maqbool is the best Indian movie ever (for real, this time).
The Mac and his Lady.
You can often judge a good Mac-daptation by how the witches are presented. If they cackle out stereotypes and toss plastic frogs into a steaming cauldron, you're probably watching a pretty bad version. If they dress all in black, don't say any lines and perform interpetative dance, get out of the theatre now. Or enjoy it, who knows. Anyway, the witches set the mood and are very important. In Maqbool, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri play the witches as two corrupt Hindu cops who like astrology and randy jokes. Yes, we were bought and sold right there.
Statler and Waldorf share yet another embarrassingly vulgar joke.
The movie opens as the play does: rather than gloomy Scotland, we're in the grimy underworld of Bombay, where the power structure is shifting. Two cops (the witches; Naseer and Om) proclaim that the stars are good and then kill a young man from the "rival" criminal organization. With that, Abbaji (King Duncan; Pankaj Kapur) now reigns as crime boss supreme. His second in command is the brooding Maqbool (Macbeth; Irfan Khan), his wife is the much younger Nimmi (Lady Macbeth; Tabu). Nimmi has the hots for Maqbool, and she is both shameless and desperate in her attempts to rope him in. He resists, but doesn't really. One evening, Maqbool and his friend Kaka (Banquo; Piyush Mishra) invite the cops over for some thank-you booze and horoscopes; Panditji (Om Puri) draws a diagram on the floor using mango chutney and proclaims that Maqbool will be a "king of kings", whereas Kaka will father a line of them. Uh oh.
As any Macbeth-fan knows, what follows is a bloodbath wherein Maqbool, driven by Nimmi's urging, kills Abbaji and then must confront both his rivals for the throne and his own escalating paranoia. Banquo's ghost shows up at dinner, Lady Macbeth can't get the blood off her hands (face, in this case). It all ends, well, badly... except for the witches/cops, who have the satisfaction of seeing every detail they predicted fall neatly into place. You can read the original here.
Nimmi/Lady M in a rare moment of happiness.
When we heard about this Bombay crime adaptation of Macbeth, we thought, "OK, that should be fun." But we never imagined how interesting it would be as well. A fellow blogger mentioned the fascinating religious dichotomy in the story: Maqbool, Abbaji and the gangsters are all very actively Muslim, while the witches are very actively Hindu. As Prof. Singh says:
Moreover, the casting of a Pandit in the role of Shakespeare's witches (though you only see the connection if you know Shakespeare's play) balances the equation a bit. For Bhardwaj, Hindu astrology is akin to witchcraft; Islam is the normative belief-system.
We at the PPCC, who have no means of picking up on these cultural reference points unless they're painfully obvious, are always very interested in learning more about South Asian culture and especially better understanding its artistic output. In fact, we had another wonderful moment of cultural illumination in the first song of the film. In it, Maqbool and Nimmi are walking to the mosque, where they will meet the rest of the mobsters (who chose to drive). The song has beautifully romantic lyrics (We stand face to face/Oh worship of my eyes/Grant me this favor/That when I fall at your feet/May I never rise again/May my life run its course), so we went, "Wow, hey passion." Then, when the characters sat down to listen to the closing verse, we realized it was a qawwali ghazal, so the song was actually one of those devotional Sufi songs in secular disguise! What glee when we figured this out! And what a smart, contextual choice!
The song itself. Pardon the jumpy video.
The movie also manages to capture the bleakness and intensity of Shakespeare's original. Partly this is owed to Irfan Khan and Tabu's performances. Irfan's Maqbool is a ticking time bomb of barely-contained violence, always surpising us with his explosions. Tabu does a very good job of showing us Nimmi's somewhat precarious mental stability already early on in the film, this makes her transition to the crazy Lady M of the Second Act seamless and believably creepy. If we have one criticism regarding the performances, we thought Pankaj Kapur's Abbaji was a little too Marlon Brando with his cinema-gangster affectations, whispy voice included. Naseer and Om are lovely as the ever-present witches; they seemed to enjoy it too, playing them as two randy old best friends who are shamelessly cowardly (basically Statler and Waldorf meet R2D2 and C3PO). And we like it when they're friends in movies, it makes us feel fuzzy inside.
This is the same couple that literary critic Harold Bloom called the one of the only "really in love" lovers of Shakespeare.
Stream the soundtrack!