Synopsis – The story of eleven prostitutes who refuse to part ways with their brothel and each other during the partition between India and Pakistan.
My Take – The year 1947 was a time when the horrors and the magnitude of suffering on both sides of the India Pakistan partition line was unimaginable and unspeakable, mainly due to the heights of cruelty forced upon people in the form of murder, rape and shattered families, all in the name of religion. Therefore it’s not entirely shocking that this dark blot on our history has been the subject of many films, this Srijit Mukerji film being one. This Hindi adaption of his own Bengali film Rajkahini (2015), tries giving history a touch of alternative reality, by creating a fictional portrait of a tumultuous past, and by inviting viewers to imagine certain turn of events in a way that never actually occurred. While, the plot sounds uniquely interesting with perfect doses of inspired feminism, it’s a shame then that the film nosedives into an abyss of hammy over-the-top melodrama and clichéd writing, an attribute very commonly seen in films produced by the Bhatt family. While the novelty in the plot remains, and of course the presence of powerhouse actress Vidya Balan in the titular role does help in keeping the proceedings watchable, it’s hard to ignore a disjointed plot that makes a fool of itself & doesn’t let you take the film seriously, herby becoming a film like most remakes – lost in translation. The story follows the formidable Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan), who runs a brothel in the midst of 1947, when India gains its freedom and is going to be partitioned according to the Radcliff Line. But when they find out that the line passes through the same brothel, two officials Srivastava (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilyas (Rajit Kapoor), old friends who now find themselves estranged, are tasked with handing over the eviction notice. However, the inmates, led by the foul-mouthed but soft-hearted Begum Jaan, decide to resist the eviction and set up a complex interplay among those within and outside the house.
The film does open on a strong note. In present day Delhi, some thugs are ruthlessly violating a woman. But in one altering moment they are shamed instead. Writer-director SrijitMukherji makes a point about how women have had to harness the power of the female body to face up to bullies. In that, the film’s theme is quickly established. It sounds like a wonderful and welcome alternative to man slamming – but perhaps it might have been more effective if the film had opted for subtlety rather than crudeness and the women had been flesh-and-blood rather than paper-thin. The arms akimbo stance, outward jutting hips, and revealing clothing are all from Shyam Benegal’s classic Mandi (1983), but director Mukerji is unable to suggest a working or professional relationship between these women who live under the same roof, which makes their latter-reel solidarity unconvincing. Neatly divided into two halves, the first part introduces us to the women of this brothel – their idyllic mansion – where cast creed or religion does not divide them. But it is the common thread of unmitigated pain and instances of our titular character’s generosity that is the binding force. How this rebellion will end, is a foregone conclusion. The second half makes it into a bloody war zone, with the “secular” whorehouse protecting its “sovereignty” as a metaphor for the huge canvas of aching grief and pain that the divide brought in its wake. But the film becomes too predictable from the start, and this story is nothing new apart from a few emotional connects which has worked well. The weak screenplay is a major drawback of the film, which lets the engagement down among the audiences. It has too many stories from different characters, and none of those stories has a strong impact. The director seemed to have believed in bringing quantities and not qualities. The thing you take back from the film is how loud & melodramatic the film’s treatment is; perhaps the makers were trying to render impact to the film’s Partition-era backdrop and characters. While the story is unique and interesting, the film has a bunch of good actors; it is the direction that falters at several points along with an over excessive shrill treatment. It doesn’t help that the narrative is routinely sidetracked by examples of Razia Sultan, the Rani of Jhansi, and Rani Padmavati of Mewar. Stories of their valor and bravado are passed down to a young child, with Vidya imagined in these roles, thereby suggesting that Begum is viewed as a savior by her girls, her faithful bodyguard (Sumit Nijhawan), a manservant (Pitobash Tripathi), and an elderly matriarch (Ila Arun). Mukherji packs too much into this narrative with multiple secondary characters and their back-stories. The violent incidents and constant swearing come at you so often, you turn slightly numb. There’s a lot of yelling and cussing before the inevitable ladies-versus-bullets battle. Lost in the noise is the opportunity to dramatize the very real violence that women faced before and during the Partition. A sequence set in the present day, which bookends the plot, is clumsily handled but is also effective in pointing out that women often pay the price for achieving freedom.
The film has migration, communal violence, multiple rapes, a brief scene of interreligious harmony, burnings, lynching, dismemberings, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, and more symbols of spatial, geographical and emotional division than you would shake your hopes for watching just an entertaining film. The film’s narrative, however, hardly tries to understand partition as the most important incident in the political history of the subcontinent; the film is all sound, no fury. Plus, this film has nothing new to tell us about this tumultuous time in our history: the British were apparently very bad, so were politicians on both sides, so were royal families. This is the kind of broadly simplistic film in which a little girl can ask, “Is it the same thing to kill a Hindu and a Muslim?” The awkward combination of Partition-era exploitation and TV serial-ish melodrama is further exacerbated by occasional arty touches. One particularly jarring visual effect recurred in the scenes with Srivastava and Ilyas, whenever there was a close-up on either, only half the face appeared onscreen. What the film lacks are moments of tenderness and quiet so as to be able to establish the enormity of the situation. Instead, we have obtrusive music and melodrama that in its hurry to make a grand statement is so infested with symbolism that it ends up becoming schematic and algorithmic. The women of the brothel are from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan; their conversations are a cacophonous mix of accents, none of which sound quite right (including a variety of north Indian dialects in your first Hindi film seems like quite a risk). Among them its Gauhar Khan and Pallavi Sharda each have their time under the spotlight, but the characters are so one-dimensional that despite some scenes which are bound to leave us teary-eyed, we can never truly connect to their predicament. The film is interested in asking the right questions, but if intent alone guaranteed execution, then bad films wouldn’t exist., because there’s much in the film that seems contrived, trying hard to impress, without getting the basics right. It is all over the place and you’re just sitting there counting how much popcorn is left in your tub. Rather than sticking to a valid point, it hovers around many things especially towards the end where everyone is running, screaming, shouting and you’re wondering as to what just happened, trust me, too much noise to take. Yes! The climax just doesn’t work. The film tries being an unusual film but fails, simply because it buckles under clichés and contrived plot twists. What really works, however, is how Vidya Balan effortlessly slips into this character. She is the show stealer who carries the film on her shoulder; though this isn’t surprising for anybody as we have seen Vidya Balan doing the same in her previous films too. But this will undoubtedly remain one of her best performances mainly for her boldness and her realistic dialogues. Apart from her, Chunky Pandey, Pallavi Sharda, Gauhar Khan have delivered an equally good performance which becomes a must watch for them if not for the storyline. While Naseeruddin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi, Rajit Kapoor, Vivek Mushran, Mishti and the rest of the ladies are alright. On the whole, ‘Begum Jaan’ is watchable for Balan’s performance, but falls short due to its loud treatment and plastic execution.
Directed – Srijit Mukherji
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes