16 years ago this day I walked into a movie hall screening and saw a fascinating, unexpected, coming together of my two loves – movies and literature.
The film was the first in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy adaptation. The film brought together a powerhouse of talent. The film changed my perception of what book adaptations could look like. The film was Maqbool.
Adapted from one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth, Maqbool was set against the backdrop of the underworld and starred Irrfan Khan and Tabu in the lead roles. The supporting cast included Pankaj Kapur, Om Puri, and Naseeruddin Shah.
Bhardwaj’s second directorial venture, after Makdee, Maqbool was a glimpse into his genius as a student of literature and his expertise as a filmmaker. It also served as a platform where Irrfan Khan’s acting chops were on fine display.
Despite the presence of stars like Pankaj Kapur, Naseeruddin Shah, and Om Puri, who more than justified their roles, Irrfan Khan was the one who stole not only the crown but also the show, ably supported by Tabu’s convincing portrayal of Lady Macbeth.
In the titular role of Maqbool, Irrfan Khan perfectly nailed the depiction of conflicting loyalties. At the start, he lays torn between his loyalty to Abba Ji (Pankaj Kapur) and his love, Abba Ji’s mistress, Nimmi (Tabu).
However, Irrfan Khan’s nuanced performance also allowed the audience to delve into his inner conflict – the fight between his ambition (to rule the gang) and his respect for Abba Ji (who will have to be killed).
Because ultimately, Macbeth is as much a tale of greed as it is of guilt. If greed makes Macbeth commit the sin of killing, guilt is what pushes him to his own mad despair and death. And Irrfan perfectly managed the two emotions.
His eyes spoke of his greed even as his gesture betrayed his sense of guilt. He brought alive the emotions in such a powerful, palpable form, that the audience lived his guilt with him and rooted for his ambition-driven sins, despite knowing better.
Tabu portrayed the role of Lady Macbeth and her layered performance is not only impossible to forget, but definitely one of the finest in her filmography.
From her manic desperation to see Maqbool win, to her unfiltered guilt, Tabu’s descent into madness appeared to be a raw exploration of the human psyche.
Additionally, it’s in their stolen moments of love that Tabu and Irrfan, through impeccable chemistry, showcase a vulnerability – one that allows you to feel for them, even though they are in the wrong.
Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah played two officers on Abba Ji’s payroll. However, their role in the film was a mix of a narrator and a black comic relief. Much like the play’s original Three Witches, the two cops predict the rise and fall of Maqbool, though unlike the witches, they don’t instigate him to commit treason.
Perhaps it was their understanding of Macbeth, their off-screen friendship their impressive acting experience, or a combination of all these, but Shah and Puri managed to cast a long shadow in a limited role. Despite appearing for a handful of scenes, you left the movie with the impression that they’d been a part of every frame.
Of course, Vishal Bhardwaj deserves complete credit for flawlessly translating the world of Macbeth, with a Scottish King and battles, to the Mumbai underworld with corrupt officers and power-hungry supporters.
Because an adaptation only works if you understand the essence of the original material. A fact that Bhardwaj proved with all three of his adaptations.
The reason why Bhardwaj could make a fictional story about a Scottish general appear as the tale of a Mumbai underworld’s henchman, was because he understood the core of the story. He could delve into the emotions behind the actions and translate them on-screen in a relatable manner.
With Maqbool, Bhardwaj gifted us an intelligent adaptation- one that stayed true to its source material and yet felt like an original story.
For someone who has not read Macbeth, Irrfan’s greed-to-guilt transformation would make just as much as sense as someone who has been familiar with the Shakespearean tragedy. That is an example of both, a brilliantly made film and craftily adapted story.
Today, as most filmmakers distort history in the name of ‘literary adaptations’, or remake originals with all the elements and none the feelings, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool stands as an able example to learn from.