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SHELF LIFE : The fatal flaws of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes

By Sumana Ramanan

07th May 2020

Why actor Irrfan Khan, who passed away on April 29, was crucial to the success of Maqbool, a 2004 Hindi film adaptation of Shakepeare’s Macbeth.

A big part of the pleasure of reading Shakespeare’s plays lies in his use of language. The 16th-century playwright, along with the King James Bible, has so enriched the English language that a huge amount of our daily usage comes from these two sources. That aspect of Shakespeare’s plays may be difficult fully to capture in adaptations in other languages. But an equally remarkable aspect of his work is his deep exploration of human psychology and behaviour, and it is this that makes his plays compelling sources for adapting to other cultures, settings and eras.

When evaluating an adaption, apart from looking at its technical dimensions, one is always tempted to ask whether it has preserved the original play’s underlying human dilemmas. With Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, namely Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth, considerable responsibility for achieving this rests with the adaptation’s lead actor. This is because in each tragedy, each protagonist suffers from what the 19th-century literary critic A.C. Bradley called a “fatal flaw” that leads to his downfall. It is this fatal flaw that drives the plot. With Hamlet this trait is indecisiveness, with King Lear vanity, with Othello jealousy, and with Macbeth ambition.

Maqbool, the Hindi film adaption of Macbeth, released in 2004, is an example of the lead actor’s importance. Maqbool is set some time in the late 20th century in Mumbai’s underworld, when it had its tentacles in many sectors. The film is technically of a high standard all round, from the script, direction and acting to cinematography, editing, sound, sets and music. The role of Maqbool, the eponymous central character who is the mafia don’s right-hand man went to actor Irrfan Khan, who passed away on April 29, at the age of 53, after a long battle with cancer. Khan had his task cut out. He was among the least experienced of a cast of top-notch senior actors, many from his own alma mater, the National School of Drama, in New Delhi. He had to portray the character’s complex inner turmoil: Maqbool is torn between loyalty to his mafia boss, who treats him like a son, and a combination of frustration arising from being an eternal lackey and ambition, the last inflamed by the don’s mistress, who fancies him. Khan managed to pull it off. The film flew, on the wings of Maqbool’s fatal flaw.


Shelf Life is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.

Sumana Ramanan is on the committee of the Literature Live! Mumbai International Literature Festival. She is an independent journalist who has worked in leading media organisations, such as Business World, Economic and Political Weekly, Hindustan Times, Reuters and Scroll.in.

You can find Sumana on Instagram and Twitter.