Star Cast:Chunky Pandey, Gauhar Khan, Naseeruddin Shah, Vidya Balan
'Begum Jaan' is the Hindi adaptation of National Award-winning filmmaker Srijit Mukherji's Bengali film, 'Rajkahini'. The film delves into the lives of 11 women living in a brothel that finds itself divided by the newly-chalked LOC, with half of the house in India and the other half in Pakistan post-partition.
Just before the intermission, Begum Jaan is given a one-month ultimatum to vacate her brothel so that the officials can complete the Indo-Pak fencing job. As the officials leave, the camera zooms out showing the girls of the brothel standing in perfect synchrony, heaving with anger and looking towards the door, each holding a weapon of choice. You might almost feel like you are watching a play. Now, watching a stage play is an awesome experience… except when you actually intended to watch a movie!
The Bengali film industry, although churning popular cinema, has also been a torch-bearer for sensible filmmaking in the country and directors like Srijit Mukherji have been the recent poster boys. The director has made some marvelous Bangla films in the last ten years, which is why his arrival in the Hindi scene should have ideally been a really happy one. Alas!
A retelling of a rather compelling Rajkahini, Begum Jaan fails to impress. Moving his plot from the India-East Pakistan border to India-West Pakistan border, setting it in Punjab, Srijit seems to have lost out on the soul of his film. But it is not because of the change in setting, but because he does away with key elements in the film.
Set in 1947, Begum Jaan becomes more about a foolhardy woman rather than feisty one, as shown in the Bangla film. Her constant bragging that ‘Raja saheb’ is going to take care of them shows she is more an arrogant fool than one who will go to any length to save her house, her ‘watan’ as she calls it. And she stays unchanged. To make her more heroic the director resorts to comparisons with historical figures such as Meera, Rani Lakshmibai, and Rani Padmini - all of which would have been fine if the character was actually brave and not daft.
What also is missing is the urgency of the partition and the politics behind it – something that Rajkahini beautifully depicts. The year of Independence was a difficult period. People were not exactly celebrating Independence as much as agonizing over the partition, with millions rendered homeless and lakhs losing family on both sides of the border. In between all this, leaders of both countries were trying to bat for their own good while the British played the devil. Of course, Begum Jaan and her house are barely affected by Independence or lack of it, but would the same imply to the screenplay? Not quite! The director resorts to a conversation between three men – a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim – to imply the horrors of the partition, in an apparent move to dumb down the screenplay for the mass audience.
Also irritating is the overdone symbolism in the cinematography. So we have half faces of Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor, who play Indian and Pakistani official in charge of the fencing job, as they talk to each other – implying how the partition left the countries. Further, in a couple of shots where both actors are fit in, there is a bamboo pole dividing the screen and also Begum Jaan’s brothel which is seen from a distance.
Notwithstanding the stuff that is missing, Srijit almost replicated scenes that he chooses to retain from Rajkahini, with dialogues that are merely translated. Even the shots are same. In some cases, the shots are so similar that it won’t be surprising if Srijit used the same shots that he captured during the making of Rajkahini. And then you have a particularly loud background music finishing off the job.
What works are the performances. Most of the characters are volatile and the actress have not managed an impressive job, given they are required to speak some languages which are not Hindi. Among the best are Gauahar Khan and Pallavi Sharda. Vidya Balan, as Begum Jaan, seems to have just reenacted what Rituporna Sengupta did in Rajkahini, which is effective as long as you have not seen the Bangla film. She does not quite add anything of her own, which is very unlike the fantastic actress that Vidya Balan usually is. But probably she is clipped by the precise translation of her lines. Ila Arun as the old lady of the house is good too. Chunky Pandey is menacing as he plays the bad man the first time in his career.
At the conceptual level, Begum Jaan is a fantastic story. It finds inspiration in Sadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh and is beautifully laid out. But what fails the film, ironically, is a National Award-winning director! Melodrama sucks the Jaan out what could possibly have been a jewel in the libraries of Vishesh Films.
By Noyon Jyoti Parasara