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

5 Replies to “Women of substance…Begum Jaan & her 11…some pondering”

  1. In fact, I enjoyed watching the film and thought that each sequence fitted beautifully. Even the shouting bit was central to creating the ambience and the part when Begum Jaan slaps the newly initiated girl several times, just to provoke a scream out of her, to help her give a vent to her agony was very powerful. I thought the film was not carried by Vidya Balan alone. The director is to be equally commended. To get Gauhar Khan, who is otherwise a item number performer, to act along side National Award winner Pitobash Tripathi (Sujit in the film), definitely requires talent. And to shoulder the dialogues, screenplay and direction, I think deserves more than 2 on 10. Yes, the film could have been better edited, especially the last bit. In fact, I was shocked that audience had deserted the film despite the substance but then again, we have more takers for films like Pyaar Ka Panchnama 1, 2 and as many as there are than powerful films like Begum Jaan. I must confess that when I saw the trailer I thought the film would be just a compilation of punch packed dialogues. But I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the director had got more than the dialogues right and delivered on most counts on my good film list.

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    1. Minouti
      thanks for your comment
      and your perspective

      The movie was certainly powerful and a movie with a message
      no 2 opinions about that

      as re treatment of the characters and way the story was told etc.our difference of opinion must remain

      if all of us thought in the same way the world would be a dull place indeed

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  2. Self help and Empowerment is the right conclusion.
    As re Vidya’s character the strongest thing that stays in your mind is how she slaps the kashmiri girl repeatedly. Am sure there will be apologits for that action but to me it typifies high handedness and I know best approach of Begum Jaan. There are countless other examples throughout the film.
    Stress and tribulations notwithstanding except the slight alluding to a lesbian kiss ALL( EACH & EVERY) interaction is strident and screaming. That does look over the top to me.. Of course i have no personal experience of houses ofill fame but to me ALL interactions cannot be screaming and shouting. That just does not look normal. at the end when they want to stay back and fight: yes emotions can run high and voices can be raised. But if for 2 hours you have done the same thing then the effect of the last scene also goes into a question mark for me.
    Maybe I have a design fault….

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  3. Dear Vikas
    Let me beg to differ, as often is the case (if not usual). It possibly needs a ‘gendered’ eye to like the film if not love it. There is a lot I could say about the film but won’t because it is your blog, but I will try to answer the two main objections you have raised

    1. About Vidya Balan becoming what she detests in the first place.- “a self willed and manipulative woman”. Well that according to me shows a double edged reality and truth of life – her becoming that in order to protect her fold, because in a world ruled by these traits her being a ‘subdued’ woman would not have helped. If she is self willed through the movie it is revealed how it helps protect her fold and if she manipulates it is because she has to survive and help those with her survive in that world. Often if one can’t beat them one has to join them, only while others do it for exploitation she does it for protection that is the difference.

    2. Why any and every interaction amongst the 11 girls in the house is high and shouting pitched – well that is how brothels are loud and high pitched very often. Given the realities of their life often sordid -why should we be surprised if tempers and pitches run high, when in so called ‘normal’ families they do so often in the modern times.

    I in fact find the movie a very strong comment on the reality of womanhood and how for a woman at most levels of the society – the best help that is accessible is at the end of her own hands. The sooner women realise this the more empowered they become…….

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