Here's our review for the big Bollywood release this week, Vidya Balan-starrer Bagum Jaan.
Vidya Balan-starrer Begum Jaan is Srijit Mukherji's Hindi remake of his Bengali original, Rajkahini (2015). Is this Partition drama worth a watch? Here is our Begum Jaan movie review.
Srijit Mukherji's Rajkahini started with an immensely powerful scene, where a young girl, raped and tortured for days and left outside the refugee camp 'hospital', is too traumatised to comprehend anything. Her father pleas yield no response, but she robotically unties her salwar when the hospital attendant is instructed to 'open' the window, her developed reflex after days of being subjected to inhuman atrocities. Surprisingly, Begum Jaan, which is mostly faithful to the Bengali original, chooses to leave this scene out.
Begum Jaan transports us to the communally-charged time of the Partition, and the 'butchering' of India into two parts. The film tells the story of a brothel which lies right in the middle of the proposed Radcliffe line. When two officials, one from the Indian National Congress (Ashish Vidyarthi) and another from the All-India Muslim League (Rajit Kapoor), tell the madam of the brothel, Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan), that she has to vacate, she is defiant and determined that nothing can displace her and her girls from their home.
Begum has full faith in the Raja (Naseeruddin Shah), whose patronage she enjoys, but her hopes are eventually dashed when he tells her the reduced authority of royalty in the new, democratic India. Still, she is determined - "Jo bhi ho, bhik mango ki tarah nahi, rani ki tarah marungi...apne mahal mein (Whatever happens, I will not die like a beggar, but a queen... in my palace." Can she win this fight?
Perhaps the impact of the film is diluted with too many backstories of characters. From the prostitutes themselves (rape, abandonment), to the Hindu and Muslim officials who grew up thick as thieves, but now finds themselves on opposite sides. The problem is, it only scratches the surface and one song is enough to show how many of the girls ended up at the brothel. But there is never any mention of what their lives were like before it all came to a brutal end.
Vidya Balan is outstanding as the foul-mouthed madam of the brothel, who has a soft heart beneath the tough exterior. it is she who carries the film on her shoulders, much like her last Bollywood outing, Kahaani 2. Pallavi Sharda as the lovestruck prostitute who yearns to escape from this life puts in a good performance, as does Gauhar Khan.
There are some scenes which require willing suspension of disbelief - it is a little hard to digest that the pimp, Sujit, is such a master of mimicry that he gets the exact voice of each girl in the brothel and different animals perfect to a tee. Asha Bhosle sings Prem Mein Tohre beautifully, but when you see Vidya lip-syncing to it, something feels wrong. Begum Jaan is unabashedly dramatic, which works in parts, but when the entire film is at a dramatic pinnacle, it takes away from it.
One would think that Begum Jaan is feminist, with the prostitutes being their own masters in the brothel. At first glance, it would seem that the fiercely defiant women are empowered, but the brief flashback shows that it was circumstance that brought them to the brothel and perhaps the only reason stopping them from leaving is having nowhere to go. It, however, gives the message that caste, creed and religion are man-made. There is no discrimination inside the brothel, neither by the girls themselves, nor by the customers.
Perhaps, Begum Jaan also subtly shows the 'what if' side of the Partition. What if men had taken up arms and refused to be divided on the parochial basis of religion? Despite whatever flaws it has, Begum Jaan leaves you with something to chew on and makes for a compelling watch, at least once.