Murder and Morality in Maqbool
RGV, Bharadwaj & the ‘underworld’ film:
It is a stormy, windy Mumbai night. A pander draws a chawk, an astrological chart, on a car’s windowpane – the future forebodes ill. Soon after, someone is murdered and blood spurts and splashes across the window glass and the rhombus of the chart that is now symbolically Mumbai. Saari Mumbai khoon se bhaar di (Look! You have drenched the whole of Mumbai in blood), mutters an irritated constable.
Thus begins Vishal Bharadwaj’s powerful and intriguing Hindi film Maqbool (2003), an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). The title of the film itself is resonant enough of the original, and the early 17th century English play and this early 21st century Hindi film have quite a few parallels.
The opening scene itself is a very good instance of one of them. It is set on a windy, stormy night in both the film as in the play. While the witches enigmatically state Fair is foul and foul is fair, thus establishing the atmosphere of the Shakespearean play; the gory future of Mumbai is foretold in the film. Like Cawdor, a traitor is slain in the film; the difference being, while that was off-scene in the play, it is visually represented in the film. With a master-stroke, Bharadwaj, through the chawk, makes Fate and blood come together at the very beginning of Maqbool. And the constable’s response only warns the audience of the inevitability of bloodshed.
However, while the opening scene is a brilliant example of Bharadwaj’s ingenious use of parallels, it is not the only one in the film. The whole film, in fact, is replete with many such instances. They are however not the USP of the film. These linkages are obvious and fairly superficial; any sensitive reader of the Shakespearean play will at once recognize the parallels when he watches the film even for the first time.
What makes Maqbool
very interesting, though, is that it manages to be quite unique even when following a particular tradition of film-making. Maqbool
belongs to a sub-genre of Bollywood – the genre that deals with the ‘underworld’ and its nexus with the Hindi film industry. In fact, it came right after two very important releases by Ram Gopal Varma in this field – Satya
(2000) and Company
(2002). But Maqbool
rises above this genre in that it is both topical and contemporary and yet transcendent of them. In the film, Bharadwaj does not simply investigate a contemporary issue on celluloid. While Varma, his predecessor, explores the underbelly of Mumbai in Satya
and shows how and why anti-socials are born; and delineates the very corporate-like power-structure of an underworld group in Company
and the way it goes ‘khallas’, Bharadwaj takes a very different route. Both of Varma’s films are authentic and competent social documents, being almost celluloid equivalents of reality TV. But while they are very interesting in themselves, they smack too strongly of the here and the now. Bharadwaj very cleverly avoids this. His film, too, is very contemporary, but in it, he transforms and elevates sociology to philosophy. He projects an essentially humanistic vision – that of evil corrupting and finally burning itself out. He universalizes his theme and thus gives his film a timeless quality. Which is why, perhaps, he goes to Shakespeare in the first place.
He, however, very intelligently avoids a whole-scale translation, as it would have been almost impossible for him to bring out the nuances of the original. What he does instead is to take the important motifs of the Shakespearean play and re-localize, re-interpret and re-formulate them in his own idiom.
Conflict between filial and sexual love
Maqbool reveals the lust for power and passion as Mian Maqbool (Irfan Khan), a Muslim mafia lieutenant and right hand man of its don Abbaji (Pankaj Kapoor), falls in love with the don’s mistress and a saga of massacre unfolds. Abetted by this mistress, Nimmi (Tabu), who also loves Maqbool and goads him to usurp the godfather’s place in the hierarchy of the gang, Mian plots and plans to take over Abbaji’s power and fiefdom. He is torn between his loyalty for his mentor and his love for Nimmi. With further aid from the two cops Pandit and Purohit (Om Puri & Naseeruddin Shah), who also provide comic relief to the dark tale, Maqbool unleashes a mayhem of crime and gore, shaking the very roots of the closely-knit mafia family. As circumstances spiral out of control, so does Maqbool’s sense of discretion. At the end, his enemies get the better of him and he loses all – Honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, even his wife and child.
At the heart of the film is thus this conflict between filial and sexual love and the way Maqbool sacrifices one for the other.
The filial bond between Mian and Abbaji is very strong. Abbaji – Jahangir Khan – is more than a father to Maqbool. He is the one who has brought him up and made a man of him. In Shakespeare’s words, it could be said that He was a gentleman on whom Abbaji had built an absolute trust. And his unshakeable faith in Maqbool – the man’s loyalty, competence and efficiency – comes out in many scenes of the film. When Maqbool is shaky when he is given the charge of the Hindi film industry by Abbaji, and protests that it is too much for him, Abbaji very fondly and tenderly says that he has full confidence that Mian will be able to handle the responsibility. His gesture is really that of a fond father and the look in his eyes, full of love. When Nimmi goes for another mannat (praying for a child)and insists that she will walk barefoot in the scorching sun, Abbaji gives up persuading her otherwise; and when Mian sensing a problem, asks Abbaji’s leave to accompany Nimmi, he readily and gladly agrees. Complains the whole city is under his control but he has to bow down before this woman’s stubbornness. He has no inkling of what is going on between Maqbool and Nimmi (though the audience already knows it). He is so blind in love – both in his love for Nimmi and Maqbool – that he does not suspect anything. Ironically enough, he himself furnishes them with opportunities of being left alone. Apart from the mannat episode, on the eve of his daughter Chhoti’s (Masumeh Makhija) wedding, when Nimmi lies to him over the phone that the wedding arrangements are not satisfactory and she needs to stay over for the night, he again readily agrees. He cannot see what is cooking in front of his eyes with regard to both the women in his house – Nimmi and Chhoti. One of the most touching scenes of the film is when, on Chhoti’s wedding-day, Abbaji arrives on the scene and sees Mian lovingly making biryani himself and giving careful instructions to others. He is moved by that sight and remarks Arre miyan, tum to bare pyar se biryani ban rahe ho. When he is himself arrested, his pride is hurt; but when Maqbool is slapped by the ACP, he cries in humiliation and embraces his son (the only one to receive such a favour from Abbaji).
All the above scenes build up to something. They attest to Abbaji’s absolute faith and trust in Maqbool, and consequently, the heinousness of the murder that is committed. That Maqbool is driven to murder this man betrays a sense of desperation. But the desperation is not his – it is Nimmi’s. It is she who goads him into it – just as Lady Macbeth had goaded Macbeth into committing Duncan’s murder in the Shakespearean play. The problem with Macbeth is not that he has ambition, but without the illness should attend it – as his wife thinks – but the fact that his hunger for power and the possible realization of his ambition through murder puts a personal relationship at stake, his relationship with Duncan, i.e. The equation between them is not just that of king and subject soldier. It is a relationship of mutual trust and affection and if Macbeth has to be king, he has to violate this bond.
This interplay between power and personal relationship, the interplay of which is one of the important subtexts of the Shakespearean play, is a timeless paradigm. And one of the most interesting aspects of Bharadwaj’s Maqbool is that he draws upon this a timeless paradigm. Like the play, Bharadwaj’s film also depicts that power and personal relationships are inextricably tied up, and a change in one inevitably, invariably entails a change in the other. And we see this interplay, in a most pronounced manner, in two crucial episodes in the film – both, incidentally, through the agency of Nimmi.
Nimmi, being caught up in an extra-marital liaison, is forever on the lookout to snatch a private moment with Maqbool. There are just two opportunities which she gets with Maqbool alone and she capitalized them. They are the most crucial scenes in the film – they are the temptation scenes. And both are juxtaposed with happy family episodes – the mannat and the wedding of Chhoti. Together, they will bring about Maqbool’s doom – because Nimmi will be granted her prayer and give birth to a son (Abbaji’s son); and Guddu (Chhoti’s husband/ Ajay Gehi) will mobilize forces against him.
On the day of the mannat, while customarily teasing Maqbool about his favourite Hindi film heroine, Nimmi drops a bombshell on him – though jokingly. She calls him a coward – for he does not have the guts to declare his love for her and then goes on to add: as in love, so in work, he will be left behind. Guddu (the son of another trusted aide of Abbaji, Kaka) will succeed Abbaji; for Guddu is having an affair with Chhoti, and once they get married, the reigns will automatically go to him. Bete nahin hone se damaad hi waaris banta hai (If you don’t have a son, your son-in-law is your heir). It is said with studied nonchalance and it has the required effect on Maqbool. The news unnerves him, de-centres him almost. It is a thought that had never struck him. He is outraged – not so much at the affair as at the prospect of Guddu taking over. He had never imagined it possible.
Maqbool feels threatened. He had recently been entrusted with the charge of handling the Hindi film industry by Abbaji. But close on the heels of that success comes this threat from a completely unpredictable quarter. He had never imagined Guddu a rival. His future power is now threatened and he even begins to doubt his present position. For the charge of the film industry, as everyone knew, was a very important portfolio as it was almost the post of the heir-apparent in their organization. But of what use would that be if Guddu was to become heir, anyway, by virtue of marrying into the family?
His future power is threatened and immediately, we see the equations of his personal relationships change – with Guddu, with Abbaji, with Chhoti.
Guddu was never a favourite; but now, he is a sworn enemy. Abbaji is God. Loyalty to him is the basic motto of Maqbool’s life. But his motives are now questioned because it is taken for granted that he will be more favourable to a damaad. So now, Maqbool feels insecure even with regard to Abbaji. Chhoti he loves. But he cannot accept the match – not because it is a bad choice, but because her husband would become a rival and he would be relegated to an inferior position.
The obverse of this scenario is found in another episode where we see that to cement a personal relationship, a dirty power game has to be played.
On the eve of Chhoti’s wedding, Nimmi manages to spend the day and night with Mian. She argues fairly persuasively and convinces Mian about the desirability of taking some action in the face of his impending threat. When he says that Abbaji is a father to him – the one who has bred and brought him up, Nimmi pointedly answers: Kutte bhi palte hain. This is irrefutable logic, especially since Mian knows that his loyalty to Abbaji has been no less than a dog’s. And after a night together, when Mian sees her praying in the morning, they have this little lethal conversation.
Maqbool: Kya maange?
Nimmi: Is raat jaisa har din bite.
Maqbool: Abbaji ke rehete yeh nahin ho sakta.
Nimmi: Aur Abbaji ke baad?
[Maqbool: What did you pray for?
Nimmi: That we spend all our days together like we did this night.
Maqbool: It can’t happen as long as Abbaji lives.
Nimmi: And, after Abbaji?]
Till now, there was no conscious thought of murder. There was only anger against Guddu. But now the thought enters his mind. And then of course, Nimmi gives her ultimatum – Maqbool has to choose between her and Abbaji. And he chooses Nimmi, against his conscience, against every moral fibre in his being.
The two scenes examined above are kind of inverted images of one another. In one, because of a possible disbalance of power, the equations of a set of personal relationships instantly change. In the other, because of a personal relationship (the most intimate of relationships – sexual love between a man and woman) power equations are forced to change.
What can be clearly discerned from the examination of the film so far is Bharadwaj’s systematic use of certain frames of enactment inspired by the Shakespearean original. He uses these frames to energize the narrative outline of the film. Three such frames stand out:
1. Duncan & Macbeth in the play – against Abbaji & Maqbool in the film;
2. Macbeth & Lady Macbeth – against Maqbool & Nimmi;
3. Banquo & Fleance (in relation to Macbeth) – against Kaka & Guddu (in relation to Maqbool)
We have already discussed the first. Of the three, the frame that is most important in the film is of course the second one – that of Maqbool and Nimmi vis-à-vis Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This is where the real drama and conflict lies – with the difference that whatever Lady Macbeth does, she does it for her husband’s sake, while Nimmi basically tries to secure her own future which is at stake. She knows she will be de-throned very soon from Abbaji’s favour as he was already being partial to a new starlet – and if the inevitable happens, she has nowhere to go, and this motivates her to do what she does.
It is ironic that neither Lady Macbeth nor Nimmi’s wishes are ultimately met. Both the women degenerate and become insane.
Lady Macbeth was sure that:
This night’s great business… [the murder of Duncan at Inverness]
… shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom,
And in the film, after a night together, Nimmi had wished, Is raat jaisa har din bite.
But that was not to be – for either women.
Both wake to a consciousness of their guilt later. As against her earlier facile realism A little water clears us of the deed, we have Lady Macbeth muttering to herself in the sleep-walking scene, Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Again, her earlier fatal commonplace What’s done is done gives way to her last despairing sentence, What’s done cannot be undone.
At the end of the film, Nimmi too is consumed by an overpowering sense of guilt. Gunaah kiya hain… na miya, humne? she asks Maqbool, and only wishes that their ishq (love) at least is spared that stain. She who had authored the entire murder plan realizes and admits at the end that it was a sin.
Both Nimmi and Lady Macbeth tempt their men into sin, and both the men yield respectively to their persuasion. Both Macbeth and Maqbool are obsessed about progeny, about bloodlines – hence their desperation for the crown. Macbeth is desperate because though he has been promised the crown by the Witches, the same has also been promised to Banquo’s progeny. Though not himself, Banquo would be father to a long line of kings. If that were really to come to pass, then Macbeth realizes that his murder of Duncan had been to no purpose. He murdered the king to usurp his place, to prevent his natural heir from succeeding him. But now it seemed that staying the claim of one son was not enough – there were other contenders too.
Duncan had been taken care of, but the Banquo-factor remained. Hence, to make one murder meaningful, he now launches into many more; and the changes within him from this point on are very swift. The man who had to be goaded into his first act of murder now decides to use barefaced power. He is willing to lose all scruple to secure his end – Banquo and Fleance, he decides, are both to be wiped off, for he sincerely believes that with them gone, he would be invincible. He is of course proved wrong; and realizes at the end that he had been deceived into a false sense of security by the Witches and all that his life has amounted to is nothing:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
This sense of futility, waste, the irony of it all – is shared by Maqbool as well and this constitutes the third frame that Bharadwaj takes over from the Shakespearean text. With Maqbool, the chief problem is Guddu. The conflict here is between the relative claims of a son-in-law and an adopted son, Guddu and Maqbool, vis-à-vis Abbaji.
The earliest route to avoid this was of course to kill the don (though Nimmi is a greater factor here). But after the don’s murder, things are no easier for Maqbool. Everyone’s suspicions are pinned on him from the very start, chief among them being Kaka (Guddu’s father/ Piyush Mishra). Kaka is fiercely loyal to Abbaji and hence can never accept Mian as his replacement. When Mian and he have a showdown, he accepts Mian’s version – but only half-heartedly. Now, it is Mian’s turn not to trust him. In fact, he can trust no one now. Since he cannot bank on Kaka’s loyalty, he gets him killed; Guddu, (like Fleance in the play) narrowly escapes murder. Just as in the play, where the counter-movement against Macbeth starts after Banquo’s murder, so in the film, the tide begins to turn against Maqbool after Kaka’s murder. In addition to having been already alienated Chhoti, Maqbool now creates a sworn enemy in Guddu. He has to fight single-handedly and more and more hopelessly against an ever stronger enemy force. Everything and everyone turns against him. To add to all this, Nimmi becomes increasingly disbalanced and a source of perpetual worry – to the extent that he neglects a crisis for her sake and hence creates more foes. But his greatest concern of all is the baby in Nimmi’s womb, whose impending birth is fraught with danger. At the end of it all, he is besieged with an overwhelming sense of futility, because he realizes that he has done it all for Abbaji’s son. It was never his in the first place. Nimmi had lied to him. Like Macbeth, for him is left the barren sceptre, and all he had done was mere sound and fury, for he is but
A poor player
Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Bharadwaj’s Maqbool is thus much more than a simple story of murder and mayhem. It is not just another run-of-the-mill Bollywood flick on the underworld. The director keeps well within the precincts of his genre of film-making and yet adds depth and profundity to his presentation by his use of Shakespeare. Like the Celtic heroes described in Shakespeare’s source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Maqbool is driven by an irresistible impulse into deeds of treachery and bloodshed but haunted when the deed is done by the sceptres of conscience.