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Vishal Bharadwaj’s incomparable adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2006) begins on a typically rainy night in Mumbai when one gang, led by Jahangir Khan alias Abbaji, is wiping out a rival one. But before the shootout and the gang wars, we find the two police officer-witches (Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri) drawing up a horoscope of Mumbai on the fogged up window of their van. When Shah shoots an informer in their custody, the horoscope is besmeared with blood. A little later Inspector Pandit and Inspector Purohit tell the new ACP, investigating the gang wars, “Shakti ka santulan zaroori hai sansar mei. Aag ke liye pani ka daar baney rehena chahiye. (The balance of power is essential in the world. Fire must always fear water.)” Macbeth and its innumerable adaptations over the years have always been stringent critiques of the pursuit of power. As the Gujarat election results came out earlier this week, I could not help but return to Bharadwaj’s film, set in the Mumbai underworld. Shakespeare’s play, arguably his shortest, has been made into cinema innumerable times over the years, in different languages, by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski and others. A 2006 adaptation by Geoffrey Wright even sets it in the Melbourne underworld. But the visceral power of rain-soaked, blood-drenched Maqbool is perhaps more appropriate for our times. There is a reason why I make this assertion. The first phase of polling in Gujarat was held on December 9, barely three days after the 25th anniversary of the razing of the Babri Masjid. Two days before that, in neighbouring Rajasthan, Shabhu Lal Regar hacked and burnt alive Mohammed Afrajul, a Bengali migrant labourer. While the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Congress’s new president Rahul Gandhi augmented the decibels in their campaigning, none made any statement on the horrific crime, the latest in a series of attacks on members of minority communities and groups.
Silence, at times, is heard the loudest, and the long shadow of this latest outrage fell on Gujarat, whether or not we acknowledge it. In Maqbool, Shah and Puri repeat the aag-pani dialogue at least twice. On the night of the engagement of Abbaji’s daughter with Kakaji’s son, the two inspectors, drunk, let down their pyjamas and urinate while repeating: “Aag ke liye paani ka darr baney rehena chahiye”, even as Maqbool looks on. Later in the night, he will kill Abbaji and become the boss of the Mumbai underworld. But not before, he gets a vision of the roof on which he stands covered in the blood of sacrificial goats. In a somewhat Machiavellian manner, Maqbool must, to consolidate his power, neutralise all opposition, even ordering a hit on his best friend, Kaka, and his son Guddu. The pursuit of power, as we all know, is mired in blood. A little later, in a scene almost parallel to the one which opens the film, Pandit and Purohit take Riyaz Boti/Macduff in their van to a secluded spot, to extract information about Guddu — who managed to escape the hit — and to kill him in an “encounter”. Much to Purohit’s bewilderment, Pandit allows Boti to escape. “Why did you do that?” asks an agitated Purohit. Pandit replies: “Shakti ka santulan bahut zaroori hai sansar mei. Aag ke liye pani ka darr baney rehena chahiye.” This is a crucial turning point in the narrative. By allowing Boti to live and not killing Guddu, the two witches manage to create an opposition to Maqbool’s unchecked power. Years later, this election, which returned BJP to power for the sixth consecutive time in the state, will be remembered not for a hard-fought campaign or as a plebiscite on the goods and services tax roll-out, but for how close the ruling party came to losing the state. While BJP’s vote share increased, its seat share in the Assembly fell significantly. Now, it will have to contend with a stronger Opposition, which also includes Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani. As most will remember, he rose to prominence by leading a Dalit movement following an assault on lower-caste manual scavengers in the Una for picking up animal carcasses. Even as the BJP claimed victory, its uncharacteristically muted celebrations indicate what has actually happened: santulan or balance of power.