Now it's Bollywood's turn. In director Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool, Macbeth has been turned into a Bombay Mob hit man tempted to kill his sadistic don for the don's disloyal mistress—the incarnation of Lady Macbeth. It may be possible to imagine three cackling witches in India's teeming megalopolis, but Bhardwaj chooses to replace them with a pair of corrupt, soothsaying cops who get their jollies playing all sides in the bloody gangland rivalries.
Bhardwaj's extraordinary adaptation works because the themes of ambition and contrition, politicking and deception fit seamlessly into modern Indian life. "You can place this story anywhere," Bhardwaj says, "in the army, in a bank, in journalism. It's a vicious, furious, bleak story. It's human." But Bhardwaj chose not a bank or newsroom but the Muslim underworld, and that imbues the film with urban slickness and the knife-edge insecurity of dog-eat-dog violence.
Maqbool is the best evidence yet that fresh blood is pumping vigorously in Bollywood: Bhardwaj has but one feature film to his directorial credit, Makdee, a children's movie about a witch who can turn people into animals. Rather than Bollywood's customary priority of abs, busts and nifty dance steps, he deliberately chose actors with theatrical training for the Macbeth retake. Irrfan Khan plays the violent but vulnerable Maqbool, a killer ultimately consumed by his conscience, and it's a performance that fulfills the promise Khan demonstrated in 2001's The Warrior. Pankaj Kapoor as the paunchy Mafia don borrows heavily (and successfully) from Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Bollywood grandees Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah play the clairvoyant cops; both are equally known these days for their roles in other fusion Indian films, such as Monsoon Wedding and Bombay Boys (Shah) and East is East and The Mystic Masseur (Puri).
India's commercial-film factories have a creaky tradition of taking the premises of Hollywood blockbusters—Ghost, Reservoir Dogs and Species—and twisting them into virtually interchangeable, all-singing-all-dancing musicals. In the past, Shakespeare might have been just another vein of material. But in Maqbool, Bhardwaj has jettisoned Bollywood conventions to make a film that has claustrophobia, menace, drama, a fresh romantic twist and that rarest of Bollywood accomplishments, genuine tragedy.