Vishal Bhardwaj is a highly regarded director of the commercial Hindi cinema based in Mumbai. He has made three films supposedly based on the plays of William Shakespeare. It is 500 years since Shakespeare wrote but his work continues to enchant and astonish because of its insights into human nature and how it impinges upon all decisive action that shapes the life of individuals and, directly or indirectly, reveals the salient features of the society they live in. Need one add Shakespeare remains the most popular, the most commercially successful playwright of the western world?

The three plays Bharadwaj has based his films on are Macbeth (Maqbool), Othello (Omkara), and Hamlet (Haider).

After a first feature, Makdi (Spider), for the Children’s Film Society of India, made with children though not quite for them, with some interesting if bizarre touches, Bhardwaj came into mainstream cinema for grown-ups in 2003 with Maqbool, set in gangland Mumbai of the time. A big-time crime-lord, Jahangir Khan (Pankaj Kapur) loses his mistress Nimmi (Tabu), his business territory, and life to his protégé, Maqbool (Irrfan Khan).

The narrative charts the course of his betrayal and downfall thanks to the machinations of Nimmi and Maqbool. The unfolding of the story is regularly commented upon by two corrupt policemen, Inspector Pandit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Inspector Purohit (Om Puri), spouting astrology. They do duty for the three witches in Macbeth. There is no Birnam Wood here, but according to a European critic, the sea in Maqbool is its equivalent.  It is a moot point, really.

As the film progresses it becomes apparent that Macbeth is only a starting point for a story about certain individuals immersed in organised crime in Mumbai, and the covert and overt struggle for ascendency in the control of a huge criminal syndicate. Murder and mayhem, as in Macbeth, is seen as a means to an end. There are, however, no doubts here in the minds of individuals or even attempts at soul-searching, no matter how clumsy, before embarking on any action.

People who kill in the course of their work cannot afford to pause and think about the moral or ethical implications of their actions. Murderous criminals have to act swiftly, decisively, or they die, usually, instead of the intended victim or victims. Maqbool is a thriller, modelled on the better type from Hollywood, but without its “Christian” underpinnings. Like its model from Hollywood, its primary objective is to make money without making too many “artistic” compromises.

There is an important point of departure from Christian Hollywood, and the Christian Shakespeare despite a near-delirious Nimmi washing her hands repeatedly after her elderly lover’s brutal murder at the hands of Maqbool in a scene towards the end. It is meant to echo Lady Macbeth’s anguish after the murder of King Duncan.

Nimmi’s fears are not a crisis of conscience, as it may appear on first viewing, but the terror of reprisal buried within her subconscious. This of course brings forth the idea of a connection between psychoanalysis and religion, an area beyond the scope of this piece, and certainly the film. The idea most likely would not have occurred to Bhardwaj.

The goals of commercial Hindi cinema, despite the march of time, have been to address the ritual aspects of religion, in the main Hindu, and then Islam. A key scene in Maqbool is a visit to the mausoleum of a Muslim saint. It is there that the first sparks between Nimmi and Maqbool fly. Their common patron, the elderly Jahangir Khan, is unaware of the fate soon to overtake him. The irony of the situation, though unintentional, is palpable. The visit to the mausoleum is for Nimmi to ask for a mannat, or the fulfilment of a cherished wish. A qawwali, the musical equivalent in intent and heightened emotion of the keertan, exhorts the supplicant to surrender unconditionally before Allah so that the wish is granted.

Nimmi finds her position as a kept woman intolerable though she keeps her feelings to herself. When the opportunity presents itself, she cuts loose and using her sexuality to the hilt, makes Maqbool kill his mentor.

Bhardwaj uses the same idea from Shakespeare—Lady Macbeth using sexual strength to get her husband to commit murder. Shakespeare uses the incentive of vaulting ambition fed by an insatiable hunger for power in Macbeth to be set in motion by his wife. He was not particularly concerned about the morality of the action in the scene. For that matter, neither was his audience of drunken sailors, loafers
and other such knaves.

Whether he was aware of the situation or not one cannot tell, but Bhardwaj was in front of a paying audience weaned on organised religion. He, therefore, gives Nimmi an easy way out by having Jahangir fall in love with Mohini (Sweta Menon), a woman he meets and dances with at his daughter’s wedding. Mohini then becomes Jahangir’s or Abbaji’s mistress number one, and Nimmi is relegated to second place. A valid reason for revenge is thus created.

There is precious little of Shakespeare in the film. Maqbool is a fairly well-told story about the rise and fall of gangsters in Mumbai. The only novel element is its intentional or unintentional nihilism.

Inspectors Purohit and Pandit keep commenting on the unfolding action using black comic metaphors from Hindu astrology, eagerly accepting Jahangir’s hospitality at every opportunity. The story gathers momentum after Jahangir’s murder. Maqbool takes charge of the crime syndicate but the director does not know how to invest it with clarity. He suddenly has Nimmi, by then pregnant with Maqbool’s child, hallucinating about “khoon ke dhabbe” or bloodstains on garments, and rubbing her hands to suggest washing. But all this adds up to nothing, really.

There is rebellion afoot. In a last ditch attempt, Maqbool rushes her to hospital to save her and their as yet unborn child.  Nimmi dies. The child is saved and taken by Sameera (Jahangir’s daughter) and her husband Guddu, (the son of Kakaji, Jahangir’s slain lieutenant) in the mistaken notion, perhaps, that the newborn is indeed Jahangir’s son! Maqbool steals out of hospital, walks into the sunlight, and is gunned down by a former associate. A good time is had by all, and morality is restored!

The trouble is that there is precious little of Shakespeare in the film. Maqbool is a fairly well-told story about the rise and fall of gangsters in Mumbai. The only novel element is its intentional or unintentional nihilism.

***

B

hardwaj’s next foray into Shakespeare was Omkara (2006), supposed to be an adaptation of Othello. The film is set in small-town Uttar Pradesh, presumably its most violent and lawless part. Dolly (Kareena Kapoor), the beautiful daughter of local lawyer Raghunath Mishra (Kamal Tiwari), falls hard for Omkara Shukla (Ajay Devgn), an engaging fellow, hardened criminal and murderer who works for Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah), a local don and politician. He is the most powerful link between organised crime and politics in the area.

Dolly is about to be married to a suitable boy chosen by her father. But the wedding procession of the groom is attacked and they flee in disarray. Dolly is supposedly abducted by Omkara and associates. Her father traces her to Omkara’s place but “status quo” is maintained when Bhaisaab talks to her father over the telephone and says Dolly has gone of her own free will to his protégé. She tells her father it is indeed so.

The rest of the film is a straightforward crime story with the element of all-consuming jealousy thrown in (borrowed from Othello) so that Omkara can kill Dolly for being allegedly unfaithful to him and then kill himself. The seeds of suspicion are sown by Ishwar “Langda” Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan), till recently Omkara’s closest associate. He feels slighted when a seriously wounded Bhaisaab asks Omkara to contest the coming parliamentary election.

Instead of Langda Tyagi, Omkara chooses the hot-headed Keshav “Keshu Firangi” (Vivek Oberoi) to be his lieutenant or bahubali. Langda, blind with envy, decides to wreck Omkara’s life by insinuating that Dolly is having an affair with Keshu Firangi. The introduction of this character is reminiscent of Iago, suggesting to the uninitiated that Omkara is indeed a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

The trigger is not Desdemona’s handkerchief turning up with Iago, being seen by Othello who strangles her to death in a fit of insane jealousy, but an ornament of Dolly’s stolen by Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), Langda’s wife. It conveniently turns up with Keshu. Omkara kills Dolly and then himself when he discovers he has been tricked. In a fit of rage (or is it expiation of an unforgivable sin?), Indu slashes her husband’s throat.

Shakespeare only provides the plot outline for Omkara, a film about crooks and their political mentors. The link between his masterpiece and Bhardwaj’s film is at best tenuous. But the quality of the filmmaking is another story.

The director still relies on dialogue rather than visuals to tell his story. One sequence reveals the lack of even rudimentary skill in staging action. The near-fatal attempt on Bhaisaab is filmed from a rooftop. Two motorcycle-borne assassins in extreme long shot fire at their target, presumably through the window of his car in a crowded bazaar. They are seen from the same angle driving away through the same street.

If memory serves, the next scene begins with a bottle of blood in left foreground and Bhaisaab in close-up, eyes closed, showing his profile to the viewer.

The failure to kill Bhaisaab is filmed without close shots or reaction shots of any kind. If one wants to intellectualise ineptness of technique, one could say Bhardwaj was trying to suggest violence in this town was routine and had the air of anonymity. But it does not convince. Bhaisaab is the gangster-politician who runs the place; any attempt on his life is bound to have far-reaching consequences.

A scene in a train with his thugs best illustrates the fear he inspires. The ticket-checker comes into the compartment Bhaisaab has commandeered. He exchanges light-hearted banter which masks menace with the man who responds with the necessary obsequiousness: “Sir the train belongs to you!”

Bhaisaab responds on cue. “Is it? Run the train backwards, will you!” Surely there are better ways of establishing the same thing with the camera. Falling back on dialogue is a lazy option. A lesson that Bhardwaj has failed to imbibe is that in cinema you have to show. The audience must be able to follow the story through purely visual means.

 In [Western] art music, melody is the main component in a composition. Harmony and counterpoint are adjuncts, though important. In cinema, the visual serves the same purpose as melody in music, and dialogue that of counterpoint. To further elucidate, listen to Alfred Hitchcock, one of cinema’s greatest masters and a man first trained in the rigorous language of silent cinema. When he heard extravagant praise of some of the new English directors in the 1950s, he asked, “Do they know how to tell their story in pictures?”

Hitchcock raised a question fundamental to the nature of cinema. For the record, apart from his mastery of visual storytelling, Hitchcock’s films also contain some of the wittiest dialogue in cinema. In his masterpiece, North by Northwest, Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint are hanging from the lips of Abraham Lincoln’s monumental statue at Mount Rushmore; below them is a 1,000-foot drop. The villains are close at hand.

She asks the much-married character played by Cary Grant, “Tell me, why did your other wives leave you?”

“They thought I led too dull a life.”

 ***

B

hardwaj’s third and most ambitious take on Shakespeare is Haider, which he may well believe to be a 21st century update on Hamlet. There are other adaptations of Shakespeare’s most complex play, which deals with the nature of kinship and its relation to power, especially at the highest level, and the resulting complexities that arise.

In this case it mirrors the dilemmas surrounding Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, and the indecisiveness that fogs his mind after he learns that his mother, the Queen, has connived with his uncle, who is also her lover, to have his father the King murdered. It is, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult play to film because of its complex subject matter. For the record, the most perceptive and accomplished adaptation was directed by the Russian master Grigori Kozintsev.

 Bhardwaj enters an artistic minefield by setting Haider in contemporary Kashmir ravaged by militancy, separatism and army excesses. A pall of hopelessness hangs over the film.

It opens with Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) trying to romance his wife, Ghazala (Tabu) at home. The peace is disturbed as a group of militants come in seeking his services to save a comrade. The man has acute appendicitis and must be operated on straight away. The doctor decides to do it at home as the patient is a wanted man. Things go awry. The house is surrounded by the army and police. The doctor is identified through the windshield of a police vehicle by an informer with a covered face, sitting inside. The scene evokes the terror that has gripped the daily life of the average Kashmiri. Dr Meer is arrested and disappears for good.

 Haider Meer (Shahid Kapoor), his son, returns home after completing, presumably, his college studies. He is shocked to learn that his father has not been heard of since his arrest, and that his mother is entertaining his uncle Khurram Meer (Kay Kay Menon), a collaborator and aspiring politician. He sees his mother Ghazala laughing at his uncle’s antics. Later in the film it is revealed that it was Khurram who betrayed his brother to the police.

It is with the appearance of the mysterious Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan) that Haider comes to know of his father’s incarceration and torture and humiliation in prison. Both Dr Meer and Roohdaar were thrown off a bridge into a canal. Roohdaar, though left for dead by his torturers—he was grievously wounded—managed to fight his way out and was rescued. He seeks out Haider and impresses upon him the need to take revenge on the people who betrayed his father, as that was his last wish. 

To complicate matters, there is Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor), the daughter of a senior police officer, Pervez Lone (Lalit Parimoo), who is in love with Haider.

The film loses its grip after the first 45 minutes, and meanders along for the next 115 to a dull, bathetic conclusion. Bhardwaj and his scriptwriter Basharat Peer manage to build up an atmosphere of unrelenting gloom. There is a feeling of despair everywhere. Violence has become a norm, particularly state-sponsored violence. Any citizen can be picked up on suspicion by the army or the police. Encounter killings are an everyday affair. The state police are both feared and hated.

Haider’s would-be father-in-law orders his two buffoonish informers, Salman 1 (Sumit Kaul) and Salman 2 (Rajat Bhagat), to shoot Haider in the back when he is captured briefly after being on the run. It is another matter that Haider manages to turn the tables on the two, and kill them instead.

Ghazala, with an expression of ecstasy on her face, blows herself up in the end by detonating a belt of explosives tied to her waist. Even a scene like this, shot in murky light, cannot add anything substantial in terms of emotion and ideas to the film. It seems the director is lurching from one scene of (senseless) violence and despair to another, in the hope of finding grandeur if not clarity. His search invariably ends in a cul-de-sac.

One is left wondering why Bhardwaj had to drag in Shakespeare to tell a contemporary story of revenge gone awry. Betrayal is not uncommon if the provocation is sufficient and the returns on the action worthwhile. That the aspiring politician Khurram Meer should betray his doctor brother to the security forces and then marry his sister-in-law after an affair with her does not need the sanction of a Shakespeare. Perhaps the climate of despair in strife-ridden Kashmir today does facilitate mendacity more than in other parts of India, but only just so.

Haider, the eponymous character in the film, is a good-looking, nice, confused oaf. He is no Hamlet plagued by the “to be or not to be” question. He is incapable of deep reflection. Every action of his is marked by restless, youthful impulse spurred by blind emotion.

Bhardwaj’s attempts at adapting three of Shakespeare’s most admired plays only scratches the surface of their protean depths. By setting them in the violence of 21st century India he does no service to the memory of this most perceptive of playwrights. 

Maqbool, Omkara and Haider are exercises in nihilism. The gratuitous violence in these films is reminiscent of that found in the works of Quentin Tarantino.  There is no soul-searching, no reflection on the perils and pain of being, or its moral imperatives, as Shakespeare so eloquently explores.