When two great actors pair up in a film, chances are that their collaboration will take the production to new heights. When these actors happen to be friends and contemporaries, you are in for a very special treat – as is clear from the pairing of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.

Shah and Puri were old friends from the National Institute of Drama in Delhi. In the 1970s, Shah persuaded Puri to follow him to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, and supported him during his days of financial hardship.

The friends started their careers around the same time in Indian New Wave films directed by Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. Their first performance together in major roles was in Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), a sad commentary on the exploitation of the lower socio-economic strata. Puri plays Lahanya Bhiku, the peasant who has retreated into a catatonic silence after the rape of his wife (Smita Patil). Shah is Bhaskar Kulkarni, the defence lawyer who tries to save Bhiku from the charge of having killed his wife.

Aakrosh (1980).

The next notable Shah-Puri pairing was in Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983). Puri gave a career-defining performance as police inspector Anant Velankar, while Shah plays Mike Lobo, a suspended and alcoholic inspector. The two actors have appeared together in many films since, including Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) and Mirch Masala (1985), but their finest pairing is in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003), which offers a double master class in acting.

Maqbool, based on Macbeth, is arguably the director’s finest adaptation of William Shakespeare’s plays by far. The ensemble cast includes some of Indian cinema’s finest performers, including Pankaj Kapur (Abbaji/Jehangir), Irrfan (Maqbool), Tabu (Nimmi) and Piyush Mishra (Kaka). And then there is the delightful duo, Puri and Shah, playing inspectors Pandit and Purohit respectively. Two corrupt inspectors who are on Abbaji’s payroll, the characters are screenwriter Abbas Tyrewala’s interpretation of the three witches in the play, who trigger the catastrophic events of the tragic tale with their prediction that Macbeth will be the king of Scotland. Like the witches, the inspectors predict the rise of Maqbool, Jehangir’s right-hand man, to the top of the criminal hierarchy as well as his eventual death.

Shah and Puri effortlessly swing between humour and seriousness. Their interaction is perfectly pitched, and is the result of the bonhomie that develops between two old friends who still manage to discover and share something new about each other – a strength, a quirk, a like or a dislike. The two form a mutual admiration society in the movie, and their prattling lends itself to many delightful possibilities. One can imagine the joy the casting must have given Tyrewala and Bhardwaj when they were writing the screenplay and dialogue for scenes featuring these two.

Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in Maqbool.

Pandit and Purohit are introduced in the opening scene. Purohit is jocularly narrating gory details of a staged encounter to a gangster (played by Tyrewala) inside a police vehicle even as Pandit is drawing an astrological chart on the foggy windshield. The humour suddenly gives way to shock and fear when it turns out that the gangster with whom Purohit was sharing a light moment and a drink minutes ago is to be killed by Purohit on Abbaji’s orders. The unfortunate gangster happens to be working for Moghul, Abbaji’s rival. Before finishing him off, Purohit asks Pandit to share his prediction of who will rule Mumbai, Abbaji or Moghul. Pandit replies, “Maqbool, miyan Maqbool.”

Pandit repeats this prediction shortly afterwards, in the presence of Kaka and Maqbool. Purohit adds the prophecy that Kaka’s son Guddu (Ajay Gehi) will be Maqbool’s nemesis, planting the first seeds of discontent in Maqbool’s mind.

The friends always appear together, backing up each other’s statements in every scene. Pandit’s pet phrase, “Shakti ka santulan bahut zaroori hai is sansar mein” (The balance of power is critical in this world) is supplemented by Purohit’s rejoinder, “Aag ke liye pani ka darr bana rehna chahiye” (fire must always dread water).

Maqbool (2005).

The policemen inhabit the Mumbai underworld and seek to preserve its equilibrium at all costs. In their view, this balance of power is best maintained when rival gang members eliminate each other, for this means less work for them and a steady income from Abbaji. In their keenness to preserve this balance of power, the men not only advise but even instigate Maqbool from time to time. In this respect, their characters are far more proactive than Macbeth’s witches.

Over the course of the film, the shamelessly unscrupulous public functionaries frequently abuse their power. They are driven completely by self-interest and the preservation of their authority. Despite their long-standing relationship with Abbaji, they also root for Maqbool. When Maqbool usurps Jehangir’s seat, they switch their loyalties to the new ganglord. They even warn him of his impending death. They prophesise that Maqbool will have a troubled relationship with water, and will die the day the “dariya”(sea) comes to him. That is exactly how Maqbool meets his end – his smuggling boats are seized, his criminal business is wiped out overnight and an officer from the Customs department tracks him down to his hiding place.

For all their wickedness, the pair has some redeeming qualities. In a rare scene that takes viewers by surprise, Pandit defends the police force, explaining how the men in khaki sometimes get a bad name for no good reason. Pandit is narrating the circumstances of the death of Abbaji’s mentor, Lalaji, to Maqbool. He explains how there were only three people in the room, Abbaji, Lalaji and a police officer, and yet only Abbaji survived. After the carnage, Jehangir had accused the police officer of having killed Lalaji by shooting him in the face. Pandit adds with bitterness that Abbaji would have made a brilliant actor had he not become a ganglord.

In another scene, Pandit reveals that he saved Purohit from certain death by forcing him to reconsider his relationship with his female neighbour. Pandit had apparently predicted that the woman would die of AIDS within six months. The scene demonstrates how the rascals look out for each other.

On several occasions in the story, Purohit berates Pandit for his “black tongue”, for this tongue makes nasty predictions that always come true. At this, Pandit playfully sticks out his tongue.

These moments make Maqbool a remarkable experience. The movie deserves a repeat viewing at the very least for the Shah-Puri pair, which proves that good friends in real life can also make very good co-stars on the screen.

Maqbool (2005).