In early 2000s, when a music director, known mostly for his work in niche Hindi films, began travelling to festivals for his exposure to international cinema, he chanced upon his nephew reading a “children’s version” of Shakespeare’s works. Little did he know that what began as a leisurely reading exercise, would, almost a decade and a half later, culminate into one of the most accomplished trilogies on Shakespearean literature ever.

What is interesting to note here is that what the world saw as a master stroke, with the Kingdom of Scotland being replaced by Mumbai’s underworld and the witches by corrupt policemen, to contemporarize Macbeth, was born largely out of ignorance. Had the creator felt intimidated by Shakespeare’s standing in world literature then perhaps we wouldn’t have witnessed this ‘chutzpah’ in his adaptations.

Today when we see Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, Omkara & Haider, unless told otherwise, we might not even think of them as adaptations of Macbeth, Othelo and Hamlet respectively. As his frequent collaborator, Gulzaar, points out “Vishal simply uses the name of Shakespeare for marketing gimmick. They are all but original works” This remark garbed with sarcasm is perhaps the best compliment one can give to his trilogy. 

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

 

“Shakti ka santulan”

Like most trilogies, it is very easy to notice a similarity in the screen-writing pattern in all the 3 movies. We are already familiar with the names of his characters sounding similar to the ones in the play (Gertrude becomes Ghazala, Iago becomes Ishwar ‘Langda’ Tyagi). The supernatural elements get conveniently replaced with their contemporary avatars (King Hamlet’s “ghost”  becomes a man carrying Ghost IDs – aptly named Roohdaar). The major plot points in the play always make way into the final adaptation (Desdemona’s handkerchief makes way for Dolly Mishra’s Kamarbandh but nevertheless remains pivotal to the final doom)

The "grave-digger" scene from the play & the film
The “grave-digger” scene from the play & the film

However, the similarity does extend to minor character peculiarities as well. The central character always gets a closely cropped haircut (while Irrfan & Saif got a Caesar cut, we saw Shahid’s head getting a complete shave-off). There is slight touch of an english song or a phrase to add the quirk to a narrative rolling out mostly in local dialect (much before the wordplay between Chutzpah & AFSPA we saw Kareena’s hindi medium educated Dolly learning to sing ‘I just called to say’ for Omkara always addressed as ‘My dear O’ in her love-letters).

And if you thought we had exhausted all the points, take note of how every romantic ballad, between the lead pair, paves way for the first in the series of events that would finally culminate into the tragic climax. (Nimmi lays the germ of killing Abbaji in Maqbool’s mind after ‘Rone Do’ | Indu steals the cummerbund towards the end of ‘O Saathi Re’ | Haider discloses his plan of avenging his father’s death to Arshia after ‘Khul Kabhi To’)

There might be many more similarities. We just need to keep looking!

 

“Ya to tu bahut badi lool hai. Ya bahut badi chudail.”

The two-faced Shakespearean lady
The two-faced Shakespearean lady

When Haider looks at his mother’s reflection on a broken mirror, split into two, he rightly points out her two-faced nature. The classic Shakespearean lady, whose desires and ambitions always leads to the crime. And it is her guilt of the same that consumes everyone at the end.

Does she really love her husband’s godson or is she simply looking for a means of escape from her sexless and hapless life? Why does she steal the cummerbund at the slightest prodding of her husband, without questioning him about it?  How can she, still a half-widow, sit and smile beside her new lover, basking in the glory of his electoral win; or are those dark glasses concealing her guilt-ridden eyes?

She is also the innocent victim, torn between her loved ones. She might scream out to push away her enemy. But mostly she weeps and surrenders – taking away her own life or letting her loved one take it away from her.

 

“Bewakoof aur ch***ye mein dhaage bhar ka fark hota hai”

Vishal really indulges himself in fleshing out the minor characters in Shakespeare’s play. The witches, the spies, the courtiers are not just mere sidekicks in larger scheme of things. They are instrumental in influencing the protagonists, taking the story forward and also providing the much needed comic relief in what everyone knows is going to end up in a tragedy.

Naseer & Om’s Pandit & Purohit in Maqbool, Deepak Dobriyal’s Rajju in Omkara and, the latest addition, Salman & Salman, played by Sumit Kaul & Rajat Bhagat, in Haider have some of the best written scenes in the film for them.

If it has been a while since you watched Omkara, we can recap one such scene for you.

And to all those raving on the performance of the two Salmans in Haider here is a small scene from the film for you.

 

“Hummara ishq to paak tha naa miyaan”

What is it in the forbidden love, that attracts us so strongly towards it? The very boundaries of relationship that one is expected to safeguard, end up getting violated first. It inebriates us with such a toxic strength that the lines of right and wrong get blurred.

The different shades of forbidden love
The different shades of forbidden love

Why else would Maqbool end up putting bullets into his Godfather when he has risked his entire life saving him from those very bullets? What came over Dolly to defy her father and elope from her own marriage for a hard-core criminal, lower to her in both caste and status? Was Ghazala actually in love with her brother-in-law or was just running away from her son lest she starts reciprocating his Oedipus complex?

The forbidden love doesn’t expect the world to understand it. It is continuously judged and condemned, but it continues to be giving till its last breath. Sometimes it is in form of a last peck to her son to salvage his years of desire before blowing oneself up to quench his thirst for vengeance. Other times it is just abject surrender to one’s beloved only to be smothered by him on your wedding night. As mentioned, it continues to be giving till its last breath.

 

“Hum hain ki hum nahin”

Last, but not the least, Vishal’s films are also about existential crisis. A half-brahmin continuously jostles with those who have been ridiculing his caste to gain power over them. His second-in-command forgets years of friendship when what rightfully belongs to him is usurped away by a greenhorn only because of differences in their social standing. His insecurities are not very different from a Mumbai gangster who continuously feels threatened by a lad much younger to him simply because he is soon going to qualify as his Godfather’s son-in-law. And in a world much more complex than theirs, millions of Kashmiris take sides in a war for reasons that are anything but ideological. Some are avenging the death of their closed ones. Others are following their lines of duty. Most of them are confused and are willing to sideline with anyone who can promise them safety and purpose in lives.

While love, greed, lust and redemption remain integral to the plot, it is the continuous struggle towards protecting one’s own existence that forms the core of all of Vishal’s stories. It propels them to do the unthinkable only to realize the truth when it’s too late. The truth that recurs in all the 3 movies. Whether it is by showing Maqbool giving up arms at the sight of his son being adopted by his enemy or by having Haider forgive his uncle to honor his mother’s last wishes. The truth- that has been articulated with great simplicity in Haider “Jab tak hum Inteqam se aazaad nahi ho jaate… koi Aazaadi humein aazaad nahi kar sakti”.

Here is leaving you all with the Faiz Ahmed Faiz song that is played through the movie. Set to music by Mehdi Hasan, it is the first instance of Vishal using someone else’s composition for his films. “Chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka karobaar chale……”