Begum Jaan: Crude, Crass & Uninspiring

Film: Begum Jaan

Cast: Vidya Balan, Gauhar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Rajesh Sharma, Ashish Vidyarthi, Mishti Mukherjee, Rajit Kapur, Ila Arun, Shreya Saran, Vivek Mushran, Gracy Goswami, Naseeruddin Shah, Chunkey Pandey, Pitobash, Fllora Saini, Priyanka Sethia, Sumit Nijhawan, Riddhima Tiwari, Poonam Rajput, Raviza Chauhan

Director: Srijit Mukherji

A story about displacement and how eleven prostitutes led by the indomitable Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) refused to cow down under the force of the administration wanting to divide their home into two (either side of the border) as a part of the India-Pakistan partition plan, had possibilities. The original setting on the Indo-Bangla border in Srjit’s ‘Rajkahini’ had gravitas and the film also had performance aplomb to boost its reception by the critics and Box-office but this Bollywood remake, transposed to the Indo-Pak border area towards the Northern edges of the country, loses originality, grit and believability in its fake attempts to make it more audience friendly. To subvert a creation on the basis of potential economics is not a very good idea- as can be seen from this particularly Jaan-leva experience.

The premise had promise – no doubt but the treatment is so out of place that you feel totally enervated by the experience. Neither the language nor the location lends any weight to the story. We have seen far better films based on prostitutes in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’, Gulzar’s ‘Mausam,’ Smita Patil starrer ‘Giddh,’ and they were path-breakers of their era too. ‘Begum Jaan’ tries hard to shock, uses uncouth language, is brash, brazen and unpalatable and feels totally contrived in its efforts to promote women’s empowerment (in an oblique way).

This ‘border eleven’ will go to any lengths to stay together and save their abode but their reasoning sucks. What’s the big deal you may ask? I am sure they would have done better business in a non-contentious atmosphere…wouldn’t they? Their defiance is purposeless other than to feed an already swollen ego- My house, My kingdom, My rules Begum Jaan shrilly asserts to the representatives (Rajit Kapur, Ashish Vidyarthi) of the two sides- Muslim League and INC respectively.

Srijit has a point to make when he opens the film with a young couple being molested and beaten in a Delhi bus, with the girl running for help and seeking it in the shadow of an old woman who strips in an effort to make the pursuant young men feel humiliated. This happens in the present and Srijit immediately cuts back to the past (1948) when the borders of India and Pakistan were being demarcated by the Radcliff line.

Of course the battle between the fringe dwellers and the establishment involves royalty (Naseeruddin Shah), the cops (Rajesh Sharma) , the English rulers and the politicians. And it’s an unseemly sight. The brutality of it is sure to leave you disenchanted. Ila Arun’s old maid story-teller act is downright irritating and her character doesn’t lend any weight to the overall segue of events.

In an effort to keep you distended the director/writer adds unnecessary songs and invents events that appear hopelessly contrived and untenable. Everyone appears overwrought-bursting into fits of laughter at the drop of a hat. The performances are fierce no doubt but pointless nevertheless.

One understands Srijit’s intent but this hindi-punjabi version doesn’t cut any ice. The sprawling space within the brothel is an insurmountable problem because it does not allow for an intimate theatre of absurdities. Close confines might have made even the implausible look plausible. It’s also mighty difficult to empathise with Begum Jaan’s irascibility.  Dialogues give you a whiff of partition misery but it’s not enough to shore up the context. There’s not much subtext or nuance to this version and that’s its biggest failing!

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