Bollywood meets the Bard in “Maqbool,” a transposition of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to the criminal denizens of modern Mumbai that’s a clever idea but doesn’t grip as a pure gangster yarn. Less involving than recent criminal epic “Company,” and more suited to being just a festival curio, film demands a good knowledge of the original play to work, though the running time never drags.
Following its Toronto world preem, pic showed at the New Delhi fest in October and is set to be released locally later this year, with a handful of censor trims. Producer Bobby Bedi, who spent almost a year battling the censors on “Bandit Queen” in the mid-’90s, isn’t contesting the snips this time round, most of which center on violence.
Bulbous-eyed, simmering thesp Irrfan Khan (“The Warrior”) is the eponymous Maqbool Miyan, an ambitious, ruthless sidekick in a Muslim gang run by the aging Jahangir Khan, better known as Abbaji (Pankaj Kapoor). Maqbool has his eyes on Abbaji’s crown, and the old man’s young mistress, Nimmi (Tabu), knows it. Before long, they’re making eyes at each other and plotting the old guy’s murder.
After the deed is done by Nimmi — shown in an almost abstract way — suspicion immediately falls on the plotters, who subsequently get rid of the other senior member of Abbaji’s gang, Kaka. Kaka is the father of young Gaddu, who’s been romancing Abbaji’s daughter, Sameera. As Nimmi goes mad and runs away with Maqbool, the couple is deserted by almost everyone as the cops close in.
The handful of musical numbers are less in conventional Bollywood style and more in the form of dramatic mood pieces. Helmer Vishal Bharadwaj is better known as a composer, and “Maqbool” is only his second directorial outing following the children’s picture, “The Web of the Witch” (2002).
Though the dialogue is more literary in flavor than run-of-the-mill Hindi productions, with occasional nods to Shakespeare, pic often sacrifices clarity, with the opening especially confusing with its rapid-fire introduction of a raft of personalities. To viewers unfamiliar with the finer points of the play, much of what transpires on screen won’t make sense.
Still, Bharadwaj shows a good eye for visual compositions, matching his moody cast with equally moody interiors. The charismatic Khan dominates and is surrounded by a strong male cast, with some lighter relief coming from veteran Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah as two cops in Abbaji’s pay (equivalent of the Three Witches). Tabu, usually a reliable actress, is miscast as the Lady Macbeth figure, lacking in dramatic weight and unable to make her later mad scenes convincing.
Background music by Bharadwaj himself is darkly atmospheric but pretty rudimentary. Pic played at Toronto without its built-in intermission.