Women of substance…Begum Jaan & her 11…some pondering

We saw Begum Jaan last night. A period film set in the times of Independence. An ensemble cast with some interesting names. Led by our much decorated actress with multiple national awards: Vidya Balan. In the Cinepolis VIP theater for the 8pm show my family had the privilege of experiencing a “private” screening : we were the only 3 people in the entire theater!! That itself should tell you a lot.

It was sad because the theme chosen by Srijit Mukherjee is powerful. And the writer/ director is attempting to tell this story a second time : it is a remake of his own earlier made Bengali file Rajkahini.. So Srijit deserves space in my memory book for telling the story second time: and still getting it wrong!!! I have not seen the original Rajkahini; but Begum Jaan just fails to take off, make an impression or grip you from the start. Which explains the 3 people audience ( all from one family) and an empty theater for a late evening show.

The protagonist is “tough as nails” brothel keeper whose life and living is being uprooted by the Radcliffe Line, which passes right through her palatial house of ill fame. Of course it disrupts and disturbs lives as the challenge the Radcliffe Line poses is bifurcating the settled lives of Begum Jaan and her girls. The story is about how Begum Jaan and her motley bunch of “girls” oppose the Police, the functionaries of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League,  and finally the local goondas. And die a fiery death while trying to protect their life style and their freedom.

While the backdrop is the independence movement, and the riots and human misery which got unleashed at the time of Partition, the whole treatment of the events appears totally facile and simplistic. And when the main holocaust is portrayed so poorly how can the implication of this development for Begum Jaan and her bunch of harlots involve, grip and arrest you? The same holds true for all the side themes of caste-ism, self gain & poverty of thinking or planning by the bureacracy, irrelevance and greed of Kings, and the sheer betrayal by the school teacher. Good side themes. But none of them presented powerfully.

Vidya Balan uses her talent to create a memorable character of a foul mouthed, curses spewing, iron fisted & feudalistic brothel keeper.  But the innate contradictions in the way  her character has been written by Srijit stare the discerning audience in the face. Even while she is objecting to the arbitrariness of the British rulers, and the INC & ML henchmen Begum Jaan herself comes across as a self willed and manipulative woman. Becoming exactly what she detests.  Her use of her relationship with the local Raja ( Naseeruddin Shah) by sacrificing a new virgin girl or the way she treats the village Master or her own bodyguard show Begum Jaan to be as shallow and shaken as the people she is opposing. My heart went out to Begum Jaan only in the very last sequences where she is asking her 11 prostitues to run away while she will stay alone and fight. And when they refuse, the spirited manner in which she fights and leads her “woman army” to attack the intruders multiplies your respect for what she stands for. And at the very end, a la Rani Padmini, how she leads the 5 women who are left standing into the burning haveli…i was most impressed with the smile lighting up her lips and eyes, as she accepts her final fate. By her example she she also helps the other girls accept their fate smilingly. Watch the movie just for Vidya Balan : here is an actress who can raise the movie to a level higher than what even the Director or the rest of the big cast line up can do!!

Naseer, Gauhar Khan, Vidyarthi, Rajit Kapur, Rajesh Sharma, Mushran, Ila Arun et al play their parts well but lack the sparkle that would fire your heart. Only other person who has elevated himself and his role is Chunky Pandey as the villain. Without typical Hindi film melodrama and raised voices, Chunky instills fear and anger in a subtle underplayed role which leaves deep impression. One wonders where was this talent hidden by Chunky for all these years. He never let us know his true capability. But in Begum Jaan he puts his calling card on the table most firmly.

Just two more things : one which I liked and one which I hated. First the bad news. I just could not understand why any and every interaction amongst the 11 girls in the house is high  and shouting pitched. They never have a normal conversation: all are shouting matches. What was Srijit thinking? But on another plane I loved the way Srijit has used historical Indian lore to bind the script and story together. The use of computer graphics while recounting stories of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi or Razia Sultan drive the story forward and stitch events well together.  The use of Rani Padmavati story for the climax leaves a deep impression and makes the entire finale very believable. So also the use of the old Pyasa song: Wo subah kabhi to aayegi… Goose bumps as you leave the cinema hall.

So in the rhetoric of active feminism does Begum Jaan make a powerful statement? Yes and No. The theme and direction is right. But the execution could have been much, much better. So the final scorecard would read : Vidya Balan 7 Srijit 2 (out of 10).

Bombay Times had shown a group photograph of the Begum Jaan team and said this team together has won 20 National Awards. Wonder where the Awards winning performances got lost in the Partition drama?

Love : vikas