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Man, His Madness, and the Mad Woman

Collage of posters of three films - Omkara, Maqbool and Haider. The first poster shows a man and woman embracing, the second shows a man intimately caressing the head of a woman and the thirs shows a man holding up a human skull


adj. crazy, nuts, loony, mental, insane.
adj. angry, frustrated, raging.

No one is a better drama queen than William Shakespeare. Buried in the thousands of pages he has written are men and women whose throes of passion take them to the edge of sanity and back. An unlucky few fall off the edge. Some leap willingly. Some are pushed. Some teeter on the limbus of reason for as long as a soliloquy lasts; others fall slowly over the course of an entire play. But they all lose it, like we have all lost it, at some point in time or the other. And perhaps that is why we all love the bard’s stories after all this time. We can relate to the madness.

But then there are those three tragedies: Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, where insanity is the drama. It’s serious, dangerous, even contagious. Once the madness begins, it is catching, and few are lucky to survive its carnage. Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, Omkara and Haider bring these Shakespearean classics to Hindi cinema, taking the viewer through lawless lands, each of which tests the strength of its characters’ nerves. All of them fail the test; Maqbool, Omkara and Haider lose it, and go crazy. But as you watch these Shakespearean characters transcend space and time (geography and history, if you will), you realise that Bharadwaj’s films also offer a unique lens into how our understanding of gender affects the way in which we view insanity. In his adaptations, Bharadwaj extends far more empathy to his female characters than Shakespeare does, allowing one to see how notions of masculinity and femininity and perhaps an inability to break free from these creates madness and simultaneously shapes our understanding of it.

If you think about it, the plot’s pretty straightforward in all three Shakespearean tragedies. A sane man loses it when a woman in his vicinity disturbs the fragile equilibrium of his life. But his delicacy is not apparent, not to him anyway. He believes he is strong [physical strength often buttressed by his class: a nobleman (Macbeth), a warrior (Othello) or a prince (Hamlet)] and always destined for greater glory. She, on the other hand, is fragile in disposition, by virtue of her sex. In fact, Hamlet pronounces it when he utters, “Frailty thy name is woman.” This woman falls prey easily to greed (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth), temptation (Desdemona and Emilia in Othello) and desire (Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet) and finally, in all of them, to madness. Yes, the plot’s pretty straightforward; it is even ancient. Remember Eve who bit the apple, and then tempted Adam into biting it, rendering him unable to remain in paradise? Well, paradise being lost already, the men here simply lose their minds. But that is why it works: it reaffirms this belief that man in innocent, until a woman corrupts him. Shakespeare creates brilliant and bold but ultimately wicked women, who, like Eve, fall, dragging into the vortex of disaster an Adam. But it is only his fall that is startling, only his insanity, worthy of pause and lamentation. Hers almost seems like a natural consequence for one of her gender, or like a worthy punishment for one so wicked.

But then we have Maqbool, Omkara and Haider, products of a different time in which we are so much more critical of such essentialism, and so much more aware of systemic frameworks within which gender is constructed and enacted. So, unlike their Shakespearean counterparts, Nimmi (Lady Macbeth), Dolly, Indu (Desdemona, Emilia) Ghazala and Arshia (Gertrude and Ophelia), are more aware of the patriarchal contexts in which their ‘wickedness’ is constructed, and in trying to explain the avarice, manipulation, desires, pleasures, and fears, they demonstrate a kind of gumption that is a marked departure from the original. So while they still lose their minds, they go down fighting and shouting, kicking and screaming, and for once ‘owning’ the insanity in the way the men do in Shakespearean plays. In a way, this is brilliant cinema, because it subverts the cliché of the mad woman, letting women be as mad, weak, fragile and hysterical, as society will have them, but on their own terms.

I recently watched the three movies in quick succession, and three scenes stood out for me: Nimmi in Maqbool, dying in the arms of the man she loved; Indu in Omkara slitting the throat of the man she loved before staring into an ink-dark well; and, Ghazala in Haider kissing her son on his lips before blowing herself up. And here is why.

Hamlet and his mother Gertrude share a complex relationship with incestuous overtones, where Hamlet plays the ‘innocent’ child unable to cope with his mother’s sexuality, agency and desires. They drive him insane, and he is quick to demonise them, driving her into hysteria as well. His misogyny breaks another woman – Ophelia, whom he first loves. The loss of his love drives her insane, she falls into a river and drowns, unable to help herself. In Haider, Hamlet is anything but a sulking child and Ghazala anything but lost; he kisses his mother on her neck on her wedding day, and she returns it boldly on his lips before she dies in a dramatic climax. Haider, the son of a bolder Ghazala, is not half the misogynist Hamlet is. He still loves his father more, he still punishes his mother emotionally for marrying his father’s murderer, but in the end he listens to her and walks away from revenge. Arshia, too, is stronger than Ophelia, maybe because she lives in a time when women can be journalists and ask armed men in uniform questions about state violence. When she falls apart, it is because she realises she has been played. She takes the time to un-knit a scarf she’s been making, before she takes her father’s gun and shoots herself in the head.

Then there is Indu in Omkara, whose departure from Shakespeare’s Emelia adds a feminist hue to the lawless land where Omkara becomes the head of a group of political thugs. Like Emelia, who is close to Desdemona, Indu befriends Omkara’s fiancé, Dolly and is one of the only characters who believes that Dolly is true to Omkara. But unlike Emelia, who murdered by her husband, dies praising Desdemona’s purity and fidelity, Indu’s madness turns into rage, and defying all notions of a ‘good woman,’ she loses her decorum, kills her husband, and questions cultural obsessions with fidelity. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth catalyses her husband’s downfall and then loses her mind because of her guilt. Her insanity however is not public, except for one scene where she tries to wash the blood off her hands. She is soon banished from the stage and she commits suicide off screen. Nimmi on the other hand is brazen about her desire for Maqbool, plots the death of his mentor, Abba ji, not only for power but for that love, and even after losing her mind stays before the audience, until she finally dies in Maqbool’s arms.

Given women’s long history with ‘insanity,’ and the use of it against them in order to domesticate them, confine them, limit their mobility, prevent them from owning property, justify their protection and police their behavior, it is refreshing to see Bharadwaj’s adaptions of Shakespeare use this very ‘madness,’ to explore these ‘evils’ and to contexualise them. For most part, the Hindi film ‘heroine’ still largely remains a ‘good’ woman, whose sensibilities and notions of sanity are dictated by and preserved within a patriarchal society that idolises female purity. Any ‘pagalpan’ in mainstream cinema is a result of such fidelity for one man. Bharadwaj uses ‘insanity’ to digress from the norm: through Ghazala we explore forbidden loves – that for her brother-in-law and that for her son; through Indu, impropriety and rage, and through Nimmi, shamelessness, passion and infidelity, all of which are unusual (though not entirely new) ways in which women’s desire is discussed in Hindi cinema. These films are brilliant on their own, but when the scripts are read against Shakespeare’s original plays, they force us to ask if ‘madness’ itself is a social construct, a way in which we view behaviour that threatens to shake up the patriarchal society.

If this is madness, we probably need madness. A room for hysteria, where a woman can breach the boundaries of decorum, unlearn what it means to be civilised, let the veneer of strength fall and break down without shame. There are of course mental health issues which are a different matter altogether. Then there is just everyday madness: a kind of eccentricity, a display of excessive sentiment, a parade of passion, a violent outburst of bottled up feelings, a tantrum, a scream, or even just explosive silence. We have been taught to keep it down. But that loss of control. The drama. The poetic fall – perhaps we need it, and not just on celluloid.

P.S. In slang, which we speak more often than English, ‘wicked’ just means terrific! In some parts of the world, ‘mad’ also means the same! You could have, let’s say, a wicked mad time! So, yes, we can be mad. Madness is not always a disease.