'paimāna kahe hai koī mai-ḳhāna kahe hai
duniyā tirī āñkhoñ ko bhī kyā kyā na kahe hai'
The above lines from an unknown poet's Urdu sher, perfectly encapsulates the depth and beauty of the eyes, i.e., the strongest ammunition in late Irrfan's artillery. Maybe that's why even superstar Shah Rukh Khan, who was Irrfan's colleague from Priyadarshan's 2009 film, Billu used these words for the late actor for his Instagram tribute.
Funnily enough, in Irrfan's introduction shot in Maqbool when the 'witches' (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) predict that Miyan Maqbool would be ruling over Mumbai, he is shown offering namaaz, eyes closed in veneration—his strongest weapon still unrevealed.
Whenever I have been asked what my favourite Irrfan film is, I have not even batted an eyelid before replying, 'Maqbool, of course!' For me, it is a no-brainer, not because of the gratuitous violence that has become a norm on the big screen and OTT platforms post-Wasseypur or because of a rugged-looking, young, gun-toting Irrfan who is a treat to the eyes. The main reason for Maqbool being my favourite film is the chemistry between Irrfan and Tabu, the mutual respect between two actors that was radiating off the screen and the beautiful way in which they understood the nuances of Shakespeare's writing and fleshed out Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
As a student of literature and a theatre actor myself, Macbeth was always a play that fascinated me because it perfectly encapsulated the ambitions and follies of men and women as individuals and when they are part of a couple. Macbeth, above everything else is the story of a couple who wanted a good life for themselves and were willing to work together to achieve their dreams—Maqbool also is exactly that.
I believe Maqbool works because of the artistic loyalty that the two lead actors, Irrfan and Tabu showed each other. Their relationship on screen may be toxic, I mean there are multiple murders involved for God's sake. However, there is a haunting vulnerability to their equation as well. The sneaking around behind Abbaji's back, the sexual‒romantic fantasies about each other, appearing nonchalant but actually caring deeply about the other person—it was like an oasis among all the blood and gore happening in the periphery.
One of my favourite moments from the film is when Irrfan and some of the other men are being peeping-toms, watching the women dance to 'Jheeni Meeni Jheeni' during Abbaji's daughter's engagement and Tabu corners him. The look of lust, love, respect and appreciation on Irrfan's face when he whispers, 'Tum naachti bohot acchi ho' was delectable, to say the least. Another heartwarming moment is when he searches for Tabu's missing earring in the lullaby-like love song 'Rone do jiya kare'. One tends to forget that he is a gangster and she is a mafia boss's mistress, because in this song they are like two innocent teenagers in love, playing silly games with each other.
However, one cannot forget that it is based on one of the most popular and most widely-adapted Shakespearean tragedies, so the pathos of the tragic hero needed to be enacted as well. Irrfan undoubtedly embodies Macbeth's dilemmas beautifully. The scene right before he commits the murder, in which the blood from the slaughtered goat seems to be haunting him with the permanent stains that his crime will leave on his conscience—is hauntingly beautiful.
In my opinion, the moment when Irrfan became a 'hero' from an 'actor' in the eyes of the collective Indian audience who have had very concrete notion of 'machismo', is when he sits on Abbaji's chair after killing him, taking over his business and his mistress; 'power' oozing out from his pores. It was that moment, which defined that men who do not look a certain way can also be the object of collective fantasy— the moment that later paved the way for Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpayee, Pankaj Tripathi and the like becoming 'national crushes' overthrowing the usual contenders, i.e. the fair hero with chiseled faces and bodies who can dance and serenade the heroine and fight and rarely sheds a tear.
However, as the title of this article suggests, it is a story about vulnerability; about flaws, about guilt. 'Macbeth' is also about these failings. It is not a story of victory, but essentially about defeat and succumbing to one's own demons. The trope of 'post-crime insanity', which defines the latter half of the play and therefore of the film adaptation is crucial to the plot.
The latter half of Maqbool sees Irrfan's range of being able to emote ever-so-subtly. The dilemma between loyalty towards Abbaji and loyalty towards his love defines the first half of the film, but from the time that the two lovers commit the crime of murdering Abbaji, the dilemmas and dichotomies become even more pronounced.
The pressure of maintaining a semblance of sanity in front of the outside world while crumbling under the weight of his inner demons behind closed quarters, is brilliant. So, convincing was Irrfan in his portrayal of being the quintessential macho gangster to the outside world but a solid companion full of empathy and support to Tabu in the inner chambers, that more than the scene where he commits the murder, it is the moment when he doubts the paternal identity of Tabu's child that one feels disappointed in him. This is because, even though throughout the history of Indian cinema we have seen a plethora of 'passionate' love stories where the hero is permitted to have his moments of rage where he can sling mud at the heroine's character and call her names, all in the name of intense love; in Maqbool, Irrfan could create a 'hero' who builds a 'team' with his heroine. Yes, there were moments of toxicity in their relationship, but there was always a strange sense of equality, of kinship. Both Irrfan and Tabu's characters were oppressed by a man who also nurtured them, both of them desired freedom, both of them knew that they were worth a lot more. Thus, when after getting the 'throne', so to speak, Irrfan behaves like the quintessential 'macho guy' and almost demands an agnipariksha from Tabu's character—it just does not feel 'right', even though it would feel justified in any other film. It is Irrfan's genius that only through his acting; he built a man who feels like the ultimate 'ally' to his female counterpart, despite belonging to a hyper-masculine world.
I have talked about some of my favourite moments from the film while trying to analyse why it is my favourite Irrfan piece. However, more than it being my favourite film, I believe it was THE film that launched Irrfan as a legitimate 'hero' in the collective consciousness. Before that he had already worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the stalwart Pankaj Kapoor in the film Ek Doctor Ki Maut, but it was even more of a niche film than Maqbool, which not very politely translates to: not many people saw it.
Of course the directorial genius of Vishal Bhardwaj aside, what worked for Maqbool was that it was a glimpse of what a super-refined 'masala film' with acting giants can look and feel like. It has all the ingredients needed to make a potboiler—the quintessential Mumbaiya gang with a godfather and a 'loyal' sidekick, a breathtakingly gorgeous femme fatale, mujra, murder and death of the hero and heroine towards the climax. Bollywood had seen it all before. However, Bollywood had never seen a potboiler with a bunch of National School of Drama giants like Pankaj Kapur, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Piyush Mishra and Irrfan having the time of their life, showcasing their acting chops in a play written by the bard in 1623 but still relevant.
Having watched the Malayalam film Joji and the Bengali web series Mandaar based on Macbeth (both released in 2021), not just made me realise how much Shakespeare is and will remain relatable throughout the years, but also how any cinematic or dramatic rendition of Macbeth will have to refer to Maqbool during the brainstorming phase. It is an indispensable cinematic text for all future Shakespeare adaptations, and a young man with big, beautiful eyes, hungry for his first real break in the big ol' world of Bollywood has a lot to do with it.