In Maqbool, Omkara and Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj reinvents both himself and William Shakespeare to be relevant all over again, irrespective of the demographic

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet,” American actor-director George Orson Welles once said. This is the essence of what it truly means to weave a story into the fabric of a film. It’s a pity, then, that a majority of Indian filmmakers do not possess the discerning, and poetic, eye for making movies even while they churn out one box-office hit after another. Vishal Bhardwaj, 58, is an exception. The composer-playback-singer-filmmaker treads the tightrope between being elegantly figurative and brashly courageous at the same time.

The man, an eight-time National Award winner, initially rose to prominence as a music composer who burst into the public consciousness with Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), his breakout film. Prior to this, he had composed music for Abhay (1994) — a children’s film directed by Annu Kapoor — Fauji (1995), and Sanshodhan (1996). The 10-track ingenious and ambient soundtrack of Maachis was laced with an infectious energy that made the youth go gaga over the Vishal-Gulzar jugalbandi (collaboration); those who grew up in the 1990s still remember the magic the duo strum together with Chaddi Pehen Ke Phool Khila Hain (The flower has bloomed, wearing underwear) in the 1992 serial, Jungle Book: Mowgli.

Looking at India through Shakespearean tragedies

Bhardwaj’s minimalistic but powerful orchestration, coupled with Gulzar’s wordplay in Maachis made the film’s hauntingly beautiful songs like Chhod aaye hum, woh galiyan (We’ve left behind those streets) and Chappa chappa charkha chale (Spinning wheels are turning) the anthem of sorts for music aficionados across generations. Following this musical triumph, Bhardwaj transitioned to the world of cinema with his first film, Makdee, in 2002. Many more films followed until the last year’s Khufiya. However, the crowning achievement in his impressive oeuvre is a trilogy that breathes new life into the timeless works of William Shakespeare: Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014), which transpose three of the Bard’s tragedies — Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, respectively — in the Indian setting. “These movies make Shakespearean tragedy seem a natural lens through which to view contemporary India,” wrote Rachel Saltz in New York Times.

If, as a composer, Bhardwaj has the ear for music, as a filmmaker, he has an eye for the visual. And these three films, wrought with technical finesse and bursting with a poet’s throbs of passion, demonstrate this very well. If Maqbool featured stellar performances by Irrfan Khan, Tabu, and Pankaj Kapur in leading roles, Omkara’s well-chosen cast included Ajay Devgn, Vivek Oberoi, Saif Ali Khan, and Kareena Kapoor. Haider starred Tabu, alongside Shahid Kapoor and KK Menon, in key roles. These films, celebrated as Bhardwaj’s desi spin on Shakespearean tragedies, were showcased at the British Film Institute on the Bard’s 400th death anniversary in 2016.

Bhardwaj’s ambitious pursuit of infusing these tragedies with a distinct Indian flavour, skillfully delivering them to the ordinary Indian viewer with a cross-cultural and a daring indigenous touch, raised the bar in Indian cinema. While Maqbool navigates the gritty underworld of Bombay, Omkara explores the gangdom in Uttar Pradesh, and Haider depicts the tumultuous state of Kashmir. In these films, Bhardwaj has not only crafted compelling narratives, he has also opened a gateway for Shakespearean literature to permeate the consciousness of the Indian populace, who might not have been able to access him, had it not been for Bhardwaj’s localisation of the playwright’s stories.

A tale of three elegant adaptations

Maqbool was a supremely elegant adaptation. It plunges us into a world steeped in shadows, darkness, perpetual crime and deceit. It is the story of Miyan Maqbool and his relentless pursuit of power as Nimmi, his lover and Abbaji’s mistress, urges him to take control of the latter’s empire. Even while adhering to Shakespeare’s staple themes of love, betrayal, and loyalty, Bhardwaj delves into contemporary concerns such as corruption and masculinity. He smartly subverts Shakespeare’s original portrayal of Macbeth by imbuing Irrfan’s character with more compassion and inner conflict.

Tackling the complexities of Shakespearean narratives with élan is no small feat, yet Bhardwaj not only achieved this with Maqbool, but also demonstrated his versatility and consistency with Omkara and Haider. In Omkara, he explores timeless themes of jealousy and revenge, while also dealing with women’s subjugation in a patriarchal society. The film also shines light on the fragility of men’s egos and their precarious sense of security, all the while staying true to Othello’s original premise. Of all the three adaptations, Omkara remains closest to its source material; the other two take creative liberties.

In Haider, Bhardwaj leverages Kashmir’s political landscape to foreshadow issues of identity — which reminds us of Shakespeare’s nuanced approach in Hamlet. What sets Haider apart is Bhardwaj’s reconstruction of the narrative— as he guides the protagonist, Haider (Hamlet), through the tumultuous waters of despair and distrust, he subtly alludes to the conflicted state of Kashmir itself. Bhardwaj’s brilliance lies in seamlessly weaving political undertones with the profound emotional struggles of the central character.

Not only has Shakespeare not been recognized as a feminist icon, he has also been pilloried by his critics for often crafting tragic heroines as damsels-in-distress; Bhardwaj defied this. He liberated his characters from the traditional mould while maintaining their core identity as tragic heroines from Shakespearean plays: Ghazala (Tabu) in Haider, modelled on Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor), who is Ophelia. Kay Kay Menon plays Claudius. Bhardwaj, however, instilled strength in them. In Omkara, the spotlight is on Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), adapted from Desdemona’s maidservant Emilia. As Omkara’s sister and Tyaagi’s wife, she brings gravitas to the story with her assertion.

The camera as an eye in a poet’s head

Gulzar, in moments of friendly banter, jokingly accuses Bhardwaj of committing a ‘fraud’ by using Shakespeare to his advantage. However, if one were to look at these three films closely, one gets the sense that they stand on their own and the filmmaker is not seeking shortcuts or attempting to capitalize on someone else’s hard work. When the intention is to honor and celebrate the original work by interpreting it through one’s own lens, the task becomes particularly challenging, and rewarding Bhardwaj appears to have mastered this art as he showcases his ability to interpret other literary works, like translating Ruskin Bond’s The Blue Umbrella (2005) and, more recently, bringing Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery (1931) to life in Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley (2023).

As for Shakespeare, Bhardwaj dips into his archetypal characters, now ingrained as tropes in popular culture, to craft morally ambiguous and nuanced figures. Reinvention is the only way to relevance. In his Shakespeare trilogy, Bhardwaj reinvents both himself and the Bard to be relevant all over again, irrespective of the demographic. His filmmaking is like a slow-cooked, spicy broth as he allows the film to unfold gradually, focusing on the buildup of events that lead to the ultimate catastrophe, rather than hastily diving into the middle of the chaos.

Another aspect that strikes you about the trilogy is Bhardwaj’s attention to detail in capturing the crux of the Shakespearean dramas. The fusion of the original text with the Indian milieu makes these films rich in symbolism and meaning. By choosing actors who bring authenticity and depth to their roles, Bhardwaj ensures that they resonate with the audience. The trilogy reveals a lot about his intelligence and informed approach to filmmaking. In each of these films, every shot is like poetry in motion. Perhaps what makes Bhardwaj’s filmmaking distinctly his own is the camera that acts as an eye in his poetic head.

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