Dir: Vishal Bharadwaj. India. 2003. 134mins
Shakespeare meets Bollywood in the energetic Maqbool, a two-hour-plus extravaganza expressly modelled on Macbeth, the most blood-besotted play of the Bard's maturity. Ultimately more Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Body Heat than Shakespearean, this rambunctious film borrows the playwright's characters while tarting them up in the most deliciously lurid melodramatic clothes. (Who would have thought that Macbeth could be made more over-the-top') While it's not quite as engaging as the recent near-crossover festival hit Lagaan, it's just as stylish and "big," in all senses of the word.
The huge plus here, one that gives it a leg up on Lagaan and equates it more nearly with Mira Nair's hybrid Monsoon Wedding, is that sophomore director Vishal Bharadwaj, who developed his Bollywood chops composing scores, has completely re-imagined the inevitable generic song-and-dance numbers, causing them to flow infinitely more naturally into the surrounding narrative. Thus, while its commercial prospects will largely be limited to its native country, Maqbool is a perfect addition to festivals, like Toronto, where it premiered, looking to enhance their ethnic offerings with some fun.
The Duncan figure (with more than a little of Brando's Godfather thrown into the mix) is Abbaji (Shah), who heads one of the biggest gangs in Mumbai. His loyal lieutenant, Maqbool (Khan) is seduced by Abbaji's mistress Nimmi (Tabu), who feeds him wonderfully arch dialogue like "There are 13 moles on my body. Do you want to see them all'"
Once it becomes clear that Abbaji's daughter is angling to marry Guddu, one of Abbaji's foot soldiers, Maqbool and Nimmi begin plotting to kill off Abbaji before the wedding, which will assure Guddu's ascension to the throne, can take place. Alas, guilt and a doubtful pregnancy eventually cause both plotters to become unhinged. It is here that director Bharadwaj most closely and most fruitfully adheres to the Shakespearean model, with powerful scenes that recall Lady Macbeth's frenetic handwashing and Macbeth's disturbing visions of the murdered Banquo.
Lively chases and noisy shoot-outs bring the story to its preordained conclusion. Bharadwaj is smart enough to leaven his melodrama and blood lust with comic relief, here provided by two corrupt police officers, one of whom is played by the inestimable Om Puri, who has become a solidly professional fixture of Western films with Indian subject-matter. (His policeman likes to utter comically sententious aphorisms like "For fire to burn the fear of water is necessary" while torturing a rival gang member.) While a couple of montage sequences tend to slow the action, the fight scenes are handsomely mounted, and the scene in which Abbaji is murdered provides a powerful strobe-lighted phantasmagoria.
Most interesting, though, are the song-and-dance numbers that Westerners will find, to their enjoyment, well-integrated into the story, few in number and, perhaps because of that, thoroughly delightful. The director seems to be happily straddling the fence here, both giving his primary Indian audience what it wants, yet looking askance at the same time; the chief evidence for this is the film's many clever, affectionate in-jokes at Bollywood's expense.
Production cos: Kaleidoscope Entertainment
Int'l sales: Distant Horizon
Producer: Bobby Bedi
Screenplay: Abbas Tyrewala, Vishal Bharadwaj
Cinematographer: Hemant Chaturvedi
Editor: Arif Sheikh
Production designer: Jayant Deshmukh
Sound: Robert Taylor
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
Main cast: Irfan Kah, Tabu, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah