All humans are said to have scruples. Right?
But the underworld is no stranger to murders and takeovers. Right?
Now, the tough part is believing that Miya Maqbool (Irrfan) goes through such intense guilt that he starts hallucinating after he murders his mentor Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur).
Maqbool is the righthand man of ganglord Abbaji. So my conflict is not so much in director Vishal Bharadwaj 'planting' Shakespeare's Macbeth -- on which he based Maqbool -- in the underworld, but in attributing so much guilt and self-recrimination to someone born into ruthlessness and autonomy over life.
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Here's why: this film offers some of the most imaginative visualisations seen in Hindi cinema (take a bow, cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi and Vishal Bharadwaj). The director personifies Shakespeare's conniving witches as corrupt cops -- Inspector Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Inspector Pandit (Om Puri), for whom the future is as tangible as the present. For Pandit, the world is a planetary chart meant to be animated by kababs, rainwater, sand or dry fruits. And the crafty Purohit can smooth-talk anyone into doom. He blithely tells Maqbool that in six months, he will reign over Abbaji's terrain.
Bharadwaj and Abbas Tyrewala's story speaks much of Maqbool's servility which is gradually unseated by his ambition to topple Abbaji's Don Vito Corleone-like stronghold; and Abbaji's mistress Nimmi's (Tabu) beauty. Bharadwaj accords Nimmi much of the plot's twists and turns. She uses her sexual control over Maqbool, plants the seed of murder in his head, uses all her wiles to cast her spell over him and Abbaji, such that Maqbool spends more time with her.
So when the -- cinematically well conceptualised and executed -- murder happens, all Maqbool can do is surrender to fate's whims and suffer its consequences.
This is when Irrfan's performance comes into play. He assumes the righthand guy role with ease, stumbling when Maqbool assumes control (strangely, Bharadwaj symbolises this transition with nothing more than a change in attire for Maqbool -- suits and sunglasses replace shirt and slacks), and then lets destiny take over his life. Tabu has a plum role. She takes on the challenge gamely, from a seductive woman to a guilt-ridden expectant mother, quite naturally. Now if only she would improve on her dialogue delivery.
Pankaj Kapur as the short-statured, potbellied, shuffle-footed Abbaji lends a lot of intensity to his role, along with deadpan speech. The actor knows it is a significant role and he delivers.
As for the other two stalwarts, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, it is tough to find them anything but consummate. Shah seems uneasy with Mumbai street lingo though; the role of a comical villain sometimes sits uncomfortably on him. Puri, on the other hand, is easy. From his lines: "Shakti ka santulan chahiye sansar mein. Aag ke liye paani ka dar hona chahiye," to his unselfconscious body language, he is top-notch.
A word for Piyush Mishra, who plays Kaka, Abbaji's 'lefthand' man. He is effortless and conveys all the edgy rivalry and nervousness Kaka goes through as his son Guddu (a very competent Ajay Gehi) is soon to be wed to Abbaji's daughter Sameera (Masumi Makhija).
Technically, this film is class. From the watertight editing (Aarif Sheikh), the pacy screenplay, the extremely evocative art direction (Jayant Deshmukh), Robert Taylor's interesting sound design (in spite of the occasional clichés: watch the scene where Maqbool stakes out the mafia in Rajasthan, and the sound-level intrusions), and the amazing camera of Hemant Chaturvedi.
Watch out for the execution of: The lovemaking scene; the murder; Nimmi's breakdown scene with Miya; and the climax sequence.
Maqbool is a visual gallery that is an intelligent blend of dark, tragic overtones and comic, satirical undertones.
And yes, Bharadwaj is definitely a talent. Hopefully, he will only grow with his next projects, Mantra and Timbaktu.
It would be interesting to see how this very niche and well-made film fares at the box-office; whether the audience is as discerning as recent reports claim.
Cast: Irrfan, Pankaj Kapur, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Tabu
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Producer: Bobby Bedi
Story & Screenplay: Abbas Tyrewala, Vishal Bharadwaj
Sound: Robert Taylor
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
Cinematography: Hemant Chaturvedi