Cast: Vidya Balan, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Naseeruddin Shah, Vivek Mushran, Chunky Panday
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Films based on partition always manage to touch a raw nerve. The incident that changed the society that we live in now, has been narrated multiple times on the big screen with each filmmaker bringing his own perspective to the matter.
National Award winning director Srijit Mukherji’s 2015 film Rajkahini had touched upon the gory partition of Bengal. Narrated from the point of view of the marginalised section- that is the prostitutes, the film earned critical acclaim and did rounds of several international film festivals.
Two years later, Mukherji makes his debut in Bollywood with an adaptation of his Bengali film. Begum Jaan has the same premise- that of a brothel through which the border would be created to divide the newly formed countries India and Pakistan. The occupants, headed by the Madam (Vidya Balan), are asked to vacate the house in a month’s time or face consequences. Defiant, the women start a revolution of sorts.
On paper, the film may have appeared as a grand period saga. And why not? With an ensemble comprising of actors like Vidya Balan, Rajit Kapur, Ashish Vidyarthi, Gauahar Khan, Ila Arun and others, the film appeared to have a lot of potential. It also has one of Bollywood's recurring themes- Partition- as its backdrop. So why wouldn’t the film be good?
Ironically, what appears good on paper may not always turn out that well on the big screen. The film begins in present day Delhi where a couple is chased by a bunch of drunkards in a deserted CP. An old woman comes to their rescue. Dressed mysteriously in a shirt and skirt with two pigtails tied neatly with yellow ribbons, she slowly starts undressing herself in front of the lecherous men, only to stop them from harming the girl. The director attempts to contextualize and put things in perspective with the first scene but it seems unnecessary by the end of it. Because the film uses partition as just a backdrop. It is ultimately a story of eviction. So a poignant scene on how the society treats its women is not needed perhaps.
As a performer Vidya once again excels in and as Begum Jaan. But her character carries too much weight of being the matriarch. She exudes anger, purrs like a cat and mellows down when the local King (Naseeruddin Shah) comes visiting. She speaks a language where constant references are made on how religion of a man does not matter to a whore, and how for her, all men are the same. It’s a story that tries to touch upon too many aspects at the same time and thereby jumbles up at what the core theme should be - that of a partition saga and the deep scars it left for generations to come or a story of a marginalised group fighting against the odds to rightfully claim their house.
The cast consists of gamut of character actors mostly. With nearly 20 characters in the story, it is difficult to establish everyone’s story. That said, a scene of Gauahar Khan and Pitobash stands out in which she explains that her heart loves him even if the body is used to satisfy other men. Pallavi Sharda plays Gulabo, a defiant girl, who despite Begum’s favours harbours dreams of marrying the kind school master (Vivek Mushran) who often visits the brothel. Sharda manages to shine in the limited screen space that is given to her. But perhaps the revelation in the film is Chunky Panday, who plays Kabir, a ruthless contract killer. Panday’s casting is perhaps the most interesting of the lot. Having played caricature roles in bad, slapstick comedies for years, the actor finally gets to prove his talent in an extended cameo and he shines.
Begum Jaan ultimately falls short because of an inconsistent story line and flawed screenplay. The actors are seen celebrating India’s independence in one scene and soon after, the festival of Holi. In another scene the characters are seen getting drenched and in the next, completely dry. The climax is unnecessarily loud and melodramatic and some of the scenes make you cringe.
The intentions are good. But too much is stuffed in two hours’ time. It's crisper than the original film which Mukherji in an interview had stated contained a clot of ‘cinematic fat’ but the end result appears hastily put together.
Mukherji’s Bengali films have always had the best music but unfortunately Anu Malik’s songs in Begum Jaan do not leave a lasting impression either.
The film ultimately works only for its actors but most do not get to flex their talent in a script that is trying to tell too many things at the same time.