The film canon is a fragile thing. Often, there is a lot of noise around a film — gossip, mythology, nostalgia, superlatives — and that noise condenses over the film, till it becomes inextricable from it. These films can no longer be discerned, only validated; at worst, there might be indifference. You cannot dust the myth away, it is not a layer formed on the surface as much as something that has seeped into the very fabric of the film, that to dismiss the film would be like dismissing its myth. The canonical stature of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004), released two decades ago, invokes that fragility.
An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, transplanted onto the Mumbai underworld, Maqbool was populated by actors who graduated from the National School of Drama — Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Piyush Mishra, and the youngest of the lot, Irrfan Khan, who would play the titular character. The film would jettison the green careers of both actor and director into newer, more raucous, and more celebrated directions.
Maqbool’s affair with Nimmi (Tabu), the mistress of his boss, the gangster overlord Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur), along with his untapped ambition that Nimmi needles, pushes the plot towards his decision to murder Abbaji and the guilt and snowballing aftermath that torments both Maqbool and Nimmi.
Bhardwaj tweaked the ur-text, by replacing the ominous three witches that open the play with the ominous but bumbling two inspectors — Purohit and Pandit, played by Puri and Shah, turning every surface, every object, from bottle caps and peanuts to ketchup and chutney and blood, into a janampatri, a horoscope. One of the most elegant nips Bhardwaj makes to the original is to make Nimmi the mistress of Abbaji, and not Maqbool’s wife, as she would have been had Bhardwaj been faithful to the idea of Lady Macbeth. One of the enduring fascinations of Lady Macbeth’s character is how she “unsex”-es herself, and how she constantly crushes Macbeth’s sense of himself as a man, to nudge him, cleverly, intentionally, incrementally, towards murder. That dynamic would require a verbosity and, simultaneously, an interiority which the film’s language, set firmly in the contemporary, using the grammar of realism, does not afford so easily. Instead, that tussle over his masculinity, here, becomes Maqbool’s grasping of Nimmi, the murder given a more romantic anguish, to rip her off his shadow.
Bhardwaj had a tough time casting Maqbool. Many actors would read the script, and tell him that his hero is a loser. Kay Kay Menon and Kamal Haasan, among other actors, were initially considered for the role, but when that casting fell through, Bhardwaj, impressed by Irrfan Khan’s performance in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil (2003), lassoed him into this project.
At the recently concluded Irrfan retrospective at G5A, during the post-screening conversation, when asked about auditioning Irrfan for Maqbool, Bhardwaj laughed. “Who can dare to audition Irrfan? The biggest fool would audition Irrfan,” he said. The role was Irrfan’s to take. It was his eyes, that strange weight they carried. Bhardwaj said the first shot of Irrfan in the film, seated at the back of a car, getting ready for a kill, serene, reminds the director of Buddha’s shoulder-shirking, such-is-life nihilism.
Throughout the long retrospective weekend, the panelists and the audience were trying, desperately, to theorize the late Irrfan’s artistry, because it seemed so effortless so as to not invoke any curiosity about it. Scenes were pulled up, gestured read into, pauses fixated on. His presence belonged to every world it was placed in — Ang Lee, Anees Bazmee, Anurag Basu, Asif Kapadia, Tanuja Chandra, Mira Nair — never drawing attention to itself. Naseeruddin Shah noted how, with Irrfan, there was “never any straining for an effect or trying to make an impact. There was an instinct for truth in the man, never any moment of falseness,” and this was somewhere located in him “understand[ing] the power of stillness”.
His wife Sutapa Sikdar spoke of the “rhythm” with which he spoke his dialogues, a rhythm that he “made and broke”, sometimes adding a pause where it seems unnatural, lifting a dialogue off the screen, unsteadying the balance of a scene. This making and breaking was only possible once the lines were made “makkhan”, buttery smooth. Irrfan used to read them again and again, walking around his home like an insomniac. Here is a process that sublimated into artistry, rendering it almost inconspicuous.
He would improvise, too. In the scene where the corpse of Kaka (Piyush Mishra) is brought to Maqbool — a murder Maqbool orchestrated — he comes close to the body, and hallucinating that Kaka’s eyes open, stumbles back. This stumbling was Irrfan’s touch, and Shah reached out thinking it was Irrfan the actor who stumbled, Bhardwaj thinking his actor tripped, but Irrfan exasperatedly looked at Shah, “Kya kar raha hai?” (“What are you doing?”) It was him performing as Maqbool all along.
Maqbool belonged to a very niche but slowly ballooning genre that Ram Gopal Varma announced with a gong in Satya (1998). Journalist Uday Bhatia notes in Bullets Over Bombay: Satya and the Hindi Film Gangster, “[Ram Gopal] Varma wasn’t interested in the moral fallout of organised crime; he was only trying to show the ins and outs of a cruel and charismatic world.” This genre produced films like Vaastav (1999), Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004), and Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004), among a crop from the boy’s club. The film’s morally agnostic approach to, both, the bullet-chasing characters and the bullet-stained world was, both, startling and unnerving. There was nothing, no one to hold onto on the screen, unfolding with Hemant Chaturvedi’s images playing with shadows.
Maqbool also came out of a very specific moment in Hindi cinema history as the millennium turned — the falling apart of single screen theaters, and the resulting swerve in the kind of audience Hindi cinema was catering to. Director Vishal Bhardwaj watched the ‘first day first show’ of his debut film Makdee (2002) in a single-screen. He tells journalist Uday Bhatia, “Uss samay theatres ka bahut bura haal tha (Theatres were in bad shape in those days) … I was seeing the screen through the fan.” For his next film, Maqbool, the premiere was organized in a multiplex cinema. “The face of the cinema changed because of the multiplexes … People had stopped going to the cinema because there were rats in the theatres and the air-conditioning and quality of the seats was appallingly bad. So people used to watch in their homes on pirated CDs. But when multiplexes came, that audience started coming to the theaters,” Bhardwaj tells Bhatia. His cinema, then, was firmly rooted in the multiplex, populated by characters who might spend their days in the single screen theaters.
Maqbool, unlike Macbeth, doesn’t build incrementally. Its scenes don’t sediment, but jettison. Time slips around. Too many scenes take place over the period of a day, and then, time keeps leaping, months and months ahead. Within scenes, the preoccupation isn’t narrative, but psychological. Characters shift their alliances and antagonisms quickly, almost without notice, and the film has the quality of a staccato burst after the murder, almost as if two different films have found refuge under the same title.
How much of Maqbool was made palatable by the knowledge of Macbeth? Did the murder in the film come too soon, staged too quickly, almost rushing through a moment we have been warming our seats for? Are the spots of surrealism in the film and its bending on fate rendered comical, blending into the world of the film? Over the years we have consumed Maqbool as scenes or images that float into our consciousness, via X or Instagram, and the film suddenly feels less like a viewing than a re-treading, scenes unfolding not unlike a memory test. Ah, yes. That scene. Ah, yes. Tabu.
Twenty years after its release, to slot Maqbool into categories of “good” and “bad” is perhaps useless and unnecessary. The mind is unable to work with that kind of clarity, sullied as it is with the myth and the mourning — of Khan and Puri, both no longer with us. Even Bhardwaj, when referring to the act of seeing his film after all these years comes back to a feeling — not of goodness or badness, but dignity, “Maqbool has not lost its dignity in 20 years.” And, maybe, that is what being part of a canon is — the act, the capacity, and the desire to maintain one’s dignity in the larger push and shove of time, of art, and of artists.