Indian cinema's links with the underworld grew a little stronger last week, quite incredibly at the 34th International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Just a slice of the mob was enough to ignite this otherwise lacklustre and colourless film jamboree. Delhi's cognoscenti descended on Siri Fort Auditorium on a Sunday evening for the premiere of Delhi boy and music director-turned-filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool, a reinterpretation of Macbeth in mafia surroundings.
Before Maqbool, there were only mild whispers about just a handful of good films at IFFI 2003: Marco Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile, the portrayal of an atheist's dilemmas as he witnesses the family's efforts to canonise his mother, and Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye Lenin, a gentle, humorous story of a son trying hard to keep East Germany alive for his mother who had gone into coma before the Wall fell. And, of course, the retrospective of Danish director Lars Von Trier.
However, it was after Maqbool that viewers suddenly found their voices—they now had something to talk about. Some loved it unabashedly, others couldn't forgive Bhardwaj for playing around with the dignity and depth of the Bard. Yet another set wondered how many more Mumbai gang movies they would have to bear with. And some even questioned the wisdom of perennially presenting gangsters as Muslims which was enough to provoke lead actor Irrfan into taking a crack at our troubled times. "We should move into a situation where such questions don't arise," he said.
Nonetheless, Maqbool is an engrossing film backed by a strong ensemble cast. All the sound and fury here lies in the performances, be it Pankaj Kapoor's aging Abbaji with his rasping Brandospeak or Irrfan's Maqbool. As the right-hand man of Abbaji who usurps his gang and his mistress Nimmi (Tabu), Irrfan underlines the role ever so subtly with an aching sense of conflict and guilt. Irrfan's power lies in sheer economy, in expressing a lot by actually saying very little. That holds true for the whole film as well. This version of the Bard is the least verbose but the pithy, spare lines double up wonderfully as some hard jibes—at politicians, policemen, and Bollywood.
Clearly, Bhardwaj's aim was not to re-present the lofty tragedy verbatim. "The idea was to maintain the spirit of the play," he says. "For me, it's a love story," says producer Bobby Bedi. "It's about primordial, primitive emotions," claims co-writer Abbas Tyrewala. Most of all, it's about the humanity underlying crime. The henchmen here have Kaanta Laga... playing as their cellphone ringtone, Abbaji's gang is like an extended family that dines together, has fun together and is secular enough to allow Abbaji's daughter to marry the son of his Hindu henchman, Kaka (a welcome return of theatre actor Piyush Mishra). In a wonderful recreation of the Godfather scene, you have Abbaji refusing to succumb to an arms deal, like Don Corleone's nixing of the drugs trade. Abbaji's explanation is simple: "Mumbai meri Mehbooba hai (Bombay is my beloved)." It's such romanticisation of the underworld that makes Maqbool different. "It's about the Haji Mastan, Karim Lala brand of mafia which had its own system of ethics and friendships and which died after the Bombay bomb blasts," says Tyrewala.
In fact, the film falters when its references to Shakespeare get literal, like the obsession with the blood imagery. The pace slackens after Abbaji's murder as the film ambles towards a weepy end with Nimmi's guilt assuming the form of the baby in her womb.
The knock-out device, however, is two cops, Pandit and Purohit, who keep passing off secret police information as predictions, much like Macbeth's witches. It marks a lovely coming together of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, as they play to the gallery with obvious relish.After his earlier outing with a witch, Makdee, when Bhardwaj discussed his Macbeth project with Javed Akhtar, he reportedly quipped: "Lagta hai chudailen tumhara peecha nahin chodne wali (Seems like the witches will never leave you)." Bhardwaj probably doesn't mind being the hunted one, with witches performing the fairy godmother's role.
On the surface, Maqbool has little to share with Chandraprakash Dwivedi's sweeping epic Pinjar, but together, the two films showed the way for IFFI, that big premieres could help rev up the somnolent scene, something that Cinemaya's Cinefan festival tried out with considerable success in July this year. Pinjar also showed one obvious way out for our creatively challenged mainstream Hindi cinema: if you don't have good stories to tell, just fall back on the riches our literature. Based on Amrita Pritam's novel about how human relationships transformed in the times of the Partition, it is the story of Puru (Urmila Matondkar), whose life and destiny gets entwined with that of her abductor Rashid (Manoj Bajpai). But the narration is too straightforward and filmi to make the emotional resonances achieve any tragic grandeur. In fact, the period details and emotional play at times get lost in the pretty orchestrated colours—the greens of the salwar kameezes merging into the yellow mustard fields and the maroons flowing into the muddy browns of the earth. Yes, Pinjar's about the fate and turmoil of women, but it's Manoj Bajpai's Rashid, trying hard to reconcile with his guilt, who literally steals the show.
The newly introduced premiere screenings also brought into sharp focus the fact that most films in the Indian Panorama had already been seen in earlier festivals, be it Gautam Ghose's Abar Aranye or Nagesh Kukunoor's Teen Deewarein or Aparna Sen's Mr and Mrs Iyer. So what's new? Though the package was dominated as usual by films from Bengal and Kerala, a Marathi film was chosen for the inaugural screening.
Amol Palekar's Anaahat also happens to be one of the Indian entries for the IFFI award. Set in the Malla kingdom in 10th century BC, the film deals with the practice of niyoga where a married woman could choose a mate for fathering a child if her husband was impotent or ill. Queen Sheelvati (Sonali Bendre) is happy with her husband and resigned to his impotence when she is forced by the senate to opt for niyoga to give the kingdom its rightful heir. One night out with a stranger makes her discover her sexuality and the pleasures of love. "The film looks at contemporary issues in the backdrop of 10 century BC," says Palekar. "I could have set it in Delhi, Mumbai, or even Manhattan, but making it a period piece helped add layers to it," he says. Palekar chooses not to show the Queen's lover. "Who she sleeps with was secondary and could have become titillatory. What was important was her awareness of herself," he says. Based on Surendra Verma's Soorya Ki Antim Kiran Se Soorya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak, the film has the feel of theatre and gets wordy, hinging on endless debates and discussions on what it means to be a woman, on gender equations and man-woman relationships. But what stands out is the way it uses dhrupad gayaki to articulate emotions, each expression effortlessly carried forward by a musical note.
In the melee of films, one small sweet effort may have got a trifle marginalised. Raghu Romeo, Rajat Kapoor's comedy, part-financed by NFDC, played out in the small new Auditorium 4, in search of some buyers. Raghu (an effortless Vijay Raaz), a waiter in a seedy dance bar, can find no empathy and understanding from those around him. He falls back on TV as an escape route and looks up to the holier-than-thou soap character Neetaji (a near equivalent of Tulsi in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) for support and comfort.But she is a totally different person in reality. Things come to a head when Raghu is forced to kidnap her. In Raghu..., Kapoor brings the common man and his mundane realities into cinematic focus as also the typically Indian concerns, the obsession with the K serials for that matter and the implicit takeover of Bollywood by the idiot box. But while the realities and themes remain very Indian, they are portrayed with a very western sensibility. The intercuts between humdrum reality and TV cliches, the quirky and eccentric humour is quite like a Walter Mitty. "It's inspired by Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up Tie Me Down," someone whispers about the film in our ears. Now that would be worth a check.