Maqbool : Movie Review
Rating : 4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)
Language : Hindi (English subtitles available)
Director : Vishal Bharadwaj
Circa 2000, the Indian film industry , be it the Mumbai-based central one or any regional counterpart, still hasn’t graduated to a regular culture of a script-driven selection of films. Stars call the shots inordinately,and often the screenplay is the real villain. A large proportion of the audience remains unsophisticated , and this clubbed with the pusillanimous habits of the past, makes it difficult for the country’s artistic cinema to make profits, and makes it easier for films which jettison reality and give the masses some escapist trashy fun. This will change as the country develops, but occasionally, daring films get made somehow and give hope to the nation's aesthetes. Vishal’s Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (2003) is one such picture - it only has some token sinews of commercial concern, while its skeleton progressively looms to reveal the bare bones of a throbbing, intensely constructed tragedy.
Bharadwaj, even in 2013 at the time of writing , is yet to show that he is a consistent creator of mind-blowing cinema, but it cannot be denied that the man is a unique and fearless artist in the Hindi film industry. Inspired to make movies after getting influenced by famous directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, he perseveres and creates works of genuine merit - and his directorial abilities become more and more appreciated compared to his diligent attempts at being a composer (he is the music director for all his movies).
Maqbool fuses Macbeth with Mafia in a one-of-a-kind film that artfully depicts an Indo-Saracenic vassal usurping a doomed throne. The picture on multiple occasions bandies the notion that the story’s criminal family can topple Mumbai’s government but this shabby crazy megapolis is never shown in the film. What we get instead are arid expanses of countryside in which a large sparse mansion entombs doomed anti-heroes and femmes (Khalid Mohamed had remarked that the setting was not really Bombay, but the backwaters of Bhopal !). Jahangir (Pankaj Kapoor), an elderly Mafia boss who wields considerable political clout, presides at the center of this unholy darbar. Short, with a commodious belly, and looking more more like a leprosed quivering pup than an aged lion, he nevertheless, by word and gesture, conveys his formidable and cunning power.
His mistress is the young and amply fleshed Nimmi (Tabu) who grows tired of this geriatric lover and transfers her seductions onto Maqbool : Jahangir’s trusted lieutenant who‘s grown up in the same household under the auspices of the don. Maqbool (Irrfan Khan) is young bearded dark lean and scruffy (although later in the film, for a brief period, he dons a suit and snazzy cooling glasses). Goaded and needled by Nimmi’s suggestions that he can overthrow Jahangir, Maqbool takes the bait, and tumbles into a brooding vortex of guilt and hallucinations. Power and sensuous sex, ultimately, just don’t seem to be in steady supply.
Macbeth’s witches, are represented here in an eminently inspired move by N. Shah and Om Puri, two top-class actors of Hindi cinema. Here they portray shady constables who consistently take the cake with their double-edged scheming. Indian cinema has rarely sported policemen of their indeterminate breed.
The pic’s triumphs lie in the way it bucks the trend of unimaginative screenplays, and infuses new depth and local flavour to the basic template of Macbeth. The first half sets the tone with a solid introduction to this layered story, enhanced by superb acting of multiple artists. Leading the pack is Pankaj Kapoor with his tall thespian stature. Jahanjir may look innocuous, but by his firm words and ruthless gestures to his enemies, mixed with tenderness towards allies and carnal affection to his moll, he essays a compelling portrait of an aging Indian don. He hugs Maqbool with genuine warmth because the latter seems a devoted second-in-command, but he has no qualms blaspheming a faithful bodyguard inspite of the latter’s decades of selfless service. Tabu is a sensuous dark breeze , an inseparable asset to this film.
Early in the story she walks bare-foot towards a mosque and Maqbool accompanies her for security. She tilts her face to gaze and slyly smile at Maqbool, having planted the seeds of subversion in his uncertain mind. The wind whips some of her tresses to fly just under her chin, and it is at that sustained moment that her narrowed arcing eyes mirror the legendary anti-heroine of Kurosawa’s great ‘Throne of Blood‘. Irrfan’s titular character is not flamboyant to start with, but within his means of limited strategizing and a poisoned heart that refuses to see better sense, he convincingly embodies a man whose dark arc is ultimately imbrued with poignancy . Colour and spice, however, are thrown into the mix by Piyush Mishra who often seems to relish playing a small-town ill-dressed neurotic bumpkin who rapidly speaks, swears and is prone to physically lashing out.
As its finale nears, Maqbool doesn’t slacken. In Shakespeare’s play, the prophecy that the protagonist will not fall until the woods themselves to come to him, is transplanted to the peninsula in an inspired stroke of script-writing. Pic’s screenplay by Abbas Tyrewallah and the director himself, also engineers excellent dialogue (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you’d rather hear the dialogues in the film first). When a new young inspector crashes past Jahangir’s citadel, a Hindu politician thus reassures the former “After all, even a newly baptized Muslim performs Namaaz five times a day “, to which Jahangir smiles. Nimmi tells Maqbool that he is only considered a servant by the boss, and when he argues that he cannot possibly usurp a man in whose house he has been reared, she tells him “Dogs too are reared in this house”. A smuggler apparently showing not much care for money, promises pre-payment of Rs.30 crore ($ 6 million) to Jahangir, but J turns the deal down and tells his puzzled associates: “A man whose mission is loss, can profit no one”. Vito Corleone himself might have approved of that.
Hemant Chaturvedi does not have benefit of HD images here, but his knack for his elegant wide canvases that neatly capture mofussil India (cf. Ishaqzaade), further his credentials as a first-class cinematographer. Bharadwaj thus cares not just for the story but also technical values - this attention to overall film-making distinguishes his cinema. Here he pays equal care till the end, rustling up his best piece of background music for the last, and sprinkling in an imaginative P.O.V shot to engineer a flawless climax. Maqbool, by the very nature of its original story template, heralds a poor prognosis for its characters but the technique with which they are treated, bodes very well for its director.
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