In Vishal Bhardwaj’s movie Maqbool (2003), music becomes an accessory to a crime. Set against the backdrop of the Mumbai underworld, Maqbool is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The plot revolves around Maqbool (Irrfan) lusting after the seat of crime lord Jahangir Khan (Pankaj Kapur). Khan is aided by two corrupt policemen (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) in his criminal activities, and he dotes on his mistress Nimmi (Tabu). The local version of Lady Macbeth, however, is in love with Maqbool, and wants him to kill Khan and take over as his empire.
Maqbool was Bhardwaj’s second film as director and music composer. When he made his debut with the children’s film Makdee (2002), he was already an established composer, having won a National Film Award for Godmother (1999). Makdee combined elements of horror and comedy and showed signs of the macabre that Bhardwaj has frequently displayed in his cinema since.
Maqbool takes place in a predominantly Muslim environment and reflects religious customs, feudal tastes and a Sufi musical tradition. The drama is riddled with bullets, internecine bloodletting and dark humour. The songs are hardly ever cheerful even when the melodious tunes are played during joyous occasions such as a wedding ceremony, a mujra, and a night of passion between Maqbool and Nimmi.
There is a sense of dread to the atmospheric songs, foretelling the arrival of something ugly that is going to trap the doomed characters in its snare.
Bhardwaj teams up with longtime collaborator Gulzar for the lyrics. Gulzar blends Sufi thoughts into his words, which deify saints and absolve sinners. Rubaru is the first song, filmed on a qawwal troupe at a Sufi shrine. It is robustly sung by Daler Mehndi along with Rakesh Pandit, Sabir Khan and Dominique. Their performance is intercut with Nimmi walking barefoot towards the shrine as Maqbool tails her. She deliberately pricks her foot on a thorn so that Maqbool can nurse her with a bandage. Nimmi’s blood is mixed with her emotions in the lyrics “Pairon mein padi gardish aur sar mein junun bhi hai” (With misfortune under my feet, my head is red-hot with madness). The rousing qawwali trebles into a chorus chanting “kuch bhi nahi” (there is nothing), expressing the thought that all prayers eventually amount to nothing.
Rekha Bhardwaj sings Rone Do as if the thorn is still pricking, even when Nimmi and Maqbool find a night to be together. Nimmi is sulking that Maqbool does not reciprocate her undying love. The brooding Maqbool splashes her face with water, trying to cheer her. The music is sparsely arranged with the riffs of a guitar and a gentle drumbeat. The haunting use of an orchestral sound towards the end further heightens the melancholic sound. They make love, but the mournful tune hovers over their lithe bodies like a curse.
Dheemo Re, sung by Sultan Khan, is played in the background of high-voltage scenes when the characters are either reconciling with each other or despairing to survive.
Sadhna Sargam’s rendition of the opening stanza of Jhin Min Jhini is interrupted by a stinging dialogue by Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah), in which he tells Pandit (Om Puri) that Mohini (Shweta Menon), who is performing the mujra, is Khan’s new mistress. Maqbool overhears their conversation and is disturbed. He walks over to the tent where the women are preparing for the nuptials of Khan’s daughter Sameera (Masumeh Makhija) with Guddu (Ajay Gehi). Maqbool secretly watches Nimmi dance, and she taunts him. Anuradha Sriram, Rakesh Pandit and Ustad Sultan Khan are the co-singers on the track that alternates between a qawaali and a folk sound.
The track is followed by the big dramatic turn in the narrative when Khan is killed, resulting in more bloodbaths. The music suddenly stops in the film, and Bhardwaj’s background score becomes even more portentous. Jhin Min Jhini makes a brief ghostly appearance in the climax when Maqbool returns to the house where Khan was killed. It is the last time the track is heard, and it does not augur well for its listeners.