In recent weeks I have gushed beyond reason about Vishal Bhardwaj's recent movies Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola and 7 khoon maaf. And in light of that gushing, I became more conscious that I hadn't yet seen his widely acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations, including Maqbool, based upon Macbeth. So many people I respect hold this movie in very high regard, and I went in with high expectations. That was not careful thinking on my part. While I appreciate why the movie is effusively praised, it is just not a story I needed to hear told. There is next to nothing I like about Maqbool.
I almost pulled the plug during Maqbool's unbearable first half hour, which is a scene after scene litany of anonymous angry men sneering and threatening and pointing guns at one another. Eventually, their relationships begin to fall into place (though the swaggering and gun-pointing doesn't substantially abate). Pandit and Purojit (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) are corrupt police inspectors. They moonlight as heavies in the employ of Jahangir Khan, also known as Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur), who is a widely respected - and feared - underworld boss. Abbaji's right-hand man, Miyan Maqbool (Irrfan Khan), is a brooding and angry fellow. He is nursing a secret relationship with Abbaji's mistress, Nimmi (Tabu), who goads him into betraying Abbaji and taking over the gang himself. Both Abbaji and Nimmi are beset by fits of guilt as a result of this betrayal.
The trouble with this story, for me, begins with the underworld setting. I just don't care about underworld stories. Much of this movie is one dick-fight after another - Pandit and Purojit versus whatever rival they are sent to assassinate; Pandit and Purojit versus Maqbool; Abbaji versus corrupt politicians or other smugglers he does business with; Maqbool versus Abbaji's other deputy, Kaka (Piyush Mishra), or versus Kaka's son Guddu (Ajay Gehi), who is Maqbool's principal rival as heir to Abbaji's reign. Many times through the film I just wished they could break out the rulers and be done with it. The incessant chest-beating is not just tedious; it underscores how fundamentally uninteresting these characters are. When relationships are determined by who displays the swaggiest machismo, I can muster little interest in the outcome.
Miyan Maqbool, who is of course the avatar of Macbeth himself, is supposed to be more nuanced. Macbeth's internal conflict forms the meat of Shakespeare's play. Likewise, Maqbool is meant to be an exploration of Miyan Maqbool's moral struggle, as his thirst for power outweighs his sense of filial loyalty to Abbaji. The problem is that Maqbool is a reprehensible person. He's senselessly rageful and cruel from the outset of the film. He makes his living as a thug and an assassin for a gang of weapons smugglers that includes corrupt policemen and politicians. And so if his reprehensible actions have consequences that pain him, so what? I do not feel sorry for him and I do not find his angst or his suffering terribly compelling.
If Vishal Bhardwaj had chosen to map the grand conflict of Macbeth onto more accessible, everyman characters - instead of a bunch of unredeemable underworld criminals - that could have been an utterly brilliant movie. After all, even ordinarily good people do make colossally bad choices from time to time. The fallout of an awful, evil action committed by a regular, relatable person could have been intensely compelling cinema. Instead, Maqbool offers yet another dreary story about angry men who don't know any way to respond to strong emotions except by pointing guns at people's heads. I am aware that such men exist in the world, but I am utterly uninterested in seeing their stories told again and again and again in the movies. I just don't care.
The only redeeming feature of Maqbool is Nimmi, and Tabu's smoldering, sinuous performance of her. Nimmi's story has more nuance than that of the men. She must achieve her manipulation and intimidation without the benefit of machismo, thugs, and weaponry; subtler methods are required. Nimmi is aware that her days with Abbaji are numbered after a young starlet catches Abbaji's eye; Nimmi points out that she'll have nowhere to go if Abbaji throws her out. Thus, she manipulates Maqbool - not because she truly loves him or thinks he deserves to inherit the mantle of the gang, but because it's the only way she can protect her comfortable position in the gang's luxurious haveli.
But while Nimmi's arc makes the middle of the movie more tolerable than its execrable first half hour, she is not enough to overcome my fundamental frustration with the premise. Underworld gangsters can go ahead and kill each other and betray each other and feel guilty about it or not, as much as they like. But I don't want to hear about it, and I don't watch to watch movies that glorify it. There are just so many other stories I would rather be told.