That Srijit Mukherji won a National Award for Best Director in 2015 for his movie Chotushkone, is a mystery. The film, a star-studded affair, was an underwhelming thriller that fiddled with rationality rather than being intelligent. Nothing in the film hinted of the director extraordinaire that Mukherji is projected to be. Now, the celebrated Bengali director has entered the Bombay realm with Begum Jaan, a Hindi remake of his Rajkahini, an overbearingly mawkish drama on the Partition of India.
Right from its opening sequence, where an old woman undresses in front of a bunch of men (a fluttering national flag always around as symbolism) to save a young woman from getting raped, to the climax sequence where a bunch of women walk into a burning building theatrically suicidal, and burst into laughter, Begum Jaan comes across as an utterly dishonest and terrible movie.
The plot, set in 1947, revolves around an archaic brothel, operating out of a majestic fortress on a piece of godforsaken land. The fateful line that Sir Cyril Radcliffe draws, separating Pakistan from India, turns disastrous for the brothel. The inmates are given one month notice to vacate the place, but they refuse to. The apathetic international politics trespasses into the life of these women, who are blissfully unaware of the life outside the brothel, and tears them apart.
There are heavy-handed attempts to make the situation look deeper and darker. Like the absurd shots featuring one half of the faces of two government officers – an Indian and a Pakistani – placed against the corner of the frame to denote the melancholy of partition. The lines that the veteran actors like Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajat Kapoor get to mouth are so silly that you feel embarrassed for them.
Vidya Balan plays the head of the brothel, named Begum Jaan. Unaware of the inanity of the film she is stuck in, Balan plays her part wholeheartedly, trying to look her ferocious best. For the most part, she is lying on a cot in the yard of the brothel, smoking a hookah, with a lot of attitude. Living with her are a bunch of women, raunchily dressed all the time as if they are secretly filming an Ekta Kapoor movie inside the building. There is a song sequence which compares the happy world inside the brothel, to the tumultuous political atmosphere outside. While the villagers living around are fleeing the place, you see the brothel inmates playing Holi – the raunchiest festival in the country. Shots of the refugee crowd juxtaposed with the shots of women getting wet, wasted and aroused. Because hey, they are prostitutes and they can get turned on by the sight of a banana.
The scenes inside the brothel are plainly jarring, and there is an absolute lack of cinematic aesthetics.
And there is composer Annu Malik, pretending that he is the Ravi Shankar to the Satyajit Ray that Srijit Mukherji is. His music has a personality totally disconnected from that of the movie. Consider this sequence where an old king, whom Begum is keen to entertain, asks her to sing while he is having sex with a teenage girl. “I forgot to bring my gramophone. Please sing so that I can make my old organ work,” he grins. The next thing you see is the man raping the girl, with Begum watching it, playing her Sarod and singing a song that sounds like a badly composed elegy. Bollywood has never seen a more bizarre song sequence starring two National Award winning actors (Vidya Balan, Nazeeruddin Shah).
The characters speak in metaphors. All of them. There is an unintentionally funny scene where the government officers, along with a bunch of policemen, arrive at the brothel, asking Begum Jaan to vacate the place. “Leave quickly. You have just one month,” says an officer, and Begum replies, “We know how to count a month, officer. It comes and leaves, reddening everything.” The policemen, irked by this feminist poetry, pull out their pistols and prepare to shoot. And the women take out their weapons too – ladles, kitchen knives, pieces of wood. Taken aback by the belligerence of the women, the men leave.
Any attempt to make sense of Begum Jaan is a futile exercise. It is a trifle pretending to be a serious drama about feminism, politics and issues that the makers only have a rough idea of. Worse, it doesn’t display any kind of cinematic value to cover up the glitches in the subtext.
The Begum Jaan review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.