Macbeth, also known as "The Scottish Play", is a privilege and a burden for any actor performing it.
Legions of international actors have taken up the title role, ranging from British giants like Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Peter O'Toole to American thespians like Ethan Hawke, Orson Welles, and Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
However, despite these many names, the name of Irrfan Khan, as a performer of this esteemed role, cannot be forgotten. Maqbool, an adaptation of Macbeth by director Vishal Bhardwaj in 2004 seemed like a new genre, not a typical popcorn Hindi movie for the family. Set in Mumbai instead of scenic Scotland, with gangsters instead of kings and generals, this movie could have been disregarded as a failed experiment and lost as a footnote in the annals of movie history but it was not.
A movie lacking picturesque mountains and valleys, that had been the norm in a lot of popular Bollywood movies back then, and star power in the other movies released that year, be it Hrithik Roshan in Lakshya or SRK in Swades and Veer Zaara, was elevated by good writing and great acting.
But, surpassing everyone's expectations, Irrfan did just that in Maqbool. Today, in retrospect, we can rave and appreciate his work, but at that time he was a relatively new leading man. I admit and can say that I was late in the game and saw this gem of a film some years later, when I was in college in 2009. However, what I did see, was etched in my brain forever.
The portrayal of a man haunted by his own actions and their consequences could not have been embodied better by any other actor. I felt shocked, never having seen any adaptations of the original play, as he kills the don Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur), a man he considered his father and mentor. I also felt sorry for him as he had visions of Abbaji's ghost and the guilt of the sin he had committed.
His relationship with Nimmi (Tabu) or Lady Macbeth, who acts as the catalyst to Maqbool's wrongdoings, made me question his goals but also feel sad, as it shows forbidden love, which was at the core of this story of ambition and power. Also, what I earlier thought strange, but later found amusing, was the portrayal by Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri as corrupt police officers, representing the three witches in the original play, who predict the rise of Maqbool and engage in his fall, all infused with dark humour. Also, it is important to mention the near-perfect performance of Piyush Mishra as Kaka, a loyal comrade and left hand to Abba ji. In fact, one of my favourite scenes is a confrontation between Kaka and Maqbool, involving guns, where the latter attempts to convince Kaka of his innocence in the case of Abbaji's murder.
The descent into madness for Nimmi and end for Maqbool is something I had not anticipated at the time, as we always saw things end in the favour of the protagonist. I had rooted for him to survive, despite his despicable deeds. And in that lies Irrfan's magic. To showcase a character as not just a superficial being, a figment of imagination, but as a real person with emotions and motivations, despite how good or bad they were.
When we talk about a beautiful painting, we cannot ignore the painter. In this case, Vishal Bhardwaj aided by lyricist Gulzar and cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi, did a good job of setting a very eerie and sombre mood in terms of music and in direction giving a contemporary and relatable outlook to a nearly four-hundred-year-old story. Without the impact of Maqbool, we would not have the Shakespearean trilogy including Omkara and Haider that gave us not only stories to remember, but great tragic protagonists as well. In my opinion it conveys the message of guilt very well, the way the bard intended.
I remember when I was twelve and was taken on a school trip to watch a film called The Goal in 1999 about a coach who inspires a child from a poor family to play football and play against all odds. I did not know the name of the actor who played the coach but remembered the character. Years later when I saw one of Irrfan's movies I realised I had seen him much before the Shakespearean adaptation. His dedication to his role was equally captivating in that movie as it was few years later in Maqbool.
There is one thing that rings true of Irrfan as it does of all the great actors before his generation. They may not be in physical form anymore, but they live on screen as art, and in our hearts as memories, forever.