Begum Jaan is a story of prostitutes set against the backdrop of partition of British India into Dominion of Pakistan and Union of India (later Republic of India) in 1947. As Sir Cyril Radcliffe decides to divide India and Pakistan into equitable halves, the line is supposed to divide the brothel of Begum Jaan with one half falling in India and the other in Pakistan. The film is a story where politics and prostitution confronts; with the under dregs of society negotiating patriarchal structures and values and till the end fight to save the brothel which they consider their home. The sex workers doubly exploited by their class and gender, resist and try to defend their own space even at the cost of their own lives. Though the trailer appears cut, copy, paste from its original Bengali version Rajkahini but the director has added a few new scenes in the film, even though the pivotal characters remain the same.
The director has left no stone unturned to be 'politically correct'. The conversations among common people in the film where not only Nehru but contributions of other political leaders such as Jinnah, Sardar Patel etc are mentioned, is very apt keeping in mind the present political scenario. The director perhaps tries to appease both the Hindu and the Muslim communities as Amma, the old lady of the brothel, narrates to the young girl stories of Rani Laxmibai, Mirabai and Razia Sultan. Hopefully for such 'politically correct' scenes the director at least gets an award for spreading the message of communal harmony and national integration!
The conventional trend is to compare films, characters, actresses essaying the title role, when regional films, in this case a Bengali film, are adapted into Hindi version. In the past decades, many Bengali films have been adapted in Hindi. Devdas, Uttar Falgun/Mamta, Deep Jale Jai/ Khamoshi, Nishi Pado/Amar Prem, Saat Pakhe Badha / Kora Kagaz, to name a few. Obviously, this film too will follow the trend (especially the Bengali audience). Vidya Balan is a powerful actress who can rule the Hindi film industry, but Vidya Balan fails to get into the skin of the character and make it her own. Rituparna Sengupta had essayed the character Begum Jaan in Rajkahini (the Bengali version) far more powerfully than her Hindi counterpart. But since Rituparna being from the regional film industry lacks the pan-India image required for the commercial success of such films, wasn't considered for the Hindi version.
The film dwells upon the mundane life of women engaged in flesh trade. Their sorrows, pain, ethos, woes, leisure time activities, sexual exploitation expressed through crude, raw dialogues. In one of the scenes, rain drenches Rubaina (enacted by Gauhar Khan) and Surjeet (enacted by Pitobash Tripathy) expressing emotions of love and pain in an open space, while Begum Jaan confronts officers, who arrive at her brothel with an eviction notice. However, immediately after, when Rubaina and Surjeet return to the brothel their clothes are dry!
The clothes Ashish Vidyarthi as Harshvardhan wear look very contemporary and do not match with the attires worn during that era. In the film, Begum Jaan is shown with unibrow. May be in that era perhaps women did not pluck their eyebrows. But the rest of the girls in the brothel have their eyebrows plucked and well-trimmed. The actresses portraying characters such as Jameela, Amba, Rani, Ladli, Lata are given very little scope to express themselves. Ila Arun looks like a total misfit as Amma in the film. Farida Jalal or Waheeda Rehman perhaps would have been a better choice.
Though Naseeruddin Shah needs no introduction as an actor, he is just about passable in his portrayal of Raja ji. Also, the cacophony produced by delivery of raunchy dialogues by sex workers is too disturbing. A few scenes also appear comical. Begum Jaan is shown expressing her grievances to Raja ji and asking for his help while coughing as hair of the dead dog Shikhu has got struck in her vocal cord. But as soon as Raja ji denies the help, suddenly her voice becomes normal, with no more coughs!
The scene where Pallavi Sharda as Gulabo tries to escape for a better life with the Master (enacted by Vivek Mushran), but finds herself in a horse carriage, sold to a client, and suffers sexual assault, has a powerful dialogue - 'sex workers have clients, they don't have husbands'. Few scenes from the Bengali version Raj kahini have been modified such as Gulabo taking revenge on her erstwhile lover who betrays her. She tries to reaffirm her loyalty to Begum Jaan as she kills the Master by responding, 'sex workers may not have husbands, but they can have daughters'. It reflects the nurturing traits of sex workers thereby hinting at the nature verses nurture debate (related to motherhood).
Ashish Vidyarthi as Harshvardhan and Rajit Kapur as Illias appear too average. Their characters are combination of crude elements and vulnerabilities which they fail to live up to. Sumit Nijhawan as Salim Mirza in the film fails to impress the audience. Srijit Mukherji had used Nigel Akkara's macho image and brooding eyes to portray Salim Mirza in a much better manner in the Bengali version. Perhaps the only silver lining in the film is Chunky Pandey essaying the role of Kabir.
There have been extensive portrayals of kothas /brothel in popular cinema. Characters such as Umrao Jaan (portrayed by Rekha), Sahibjaan (portrayed by Meena Kumari in the film Pakeezah), Anarkali (portrayed by Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam) have been immortalized. But despite much hype of being a female-oriented movie focusing on women's emancipation, wide scale promotion by the production house, director, leading actress, the character Begum Jaan fades from the minds of the audience as soon as they leave the multiplex. The background score and the music of the film composed by Anu Malik is average even though all the leading playback singers of the Mumbai film industry have been used.
The film connects 1947 to 2017 by a single chord – defilement of woman's body is the most glaring signal to assert manhood and symbolizing victory. The film depicts how in a patriarchal society men try to control, over power and exploit women's sexuality.
The film despite the hard work of the entire cast and crew fails to create an impression in our minds. In the end, Begum Jaan is an over hyped, average film. Srijit Mukherji, may be an expert in marketing and advertising his films but his directorial skills needs honing. He remains an overrated film maker who perhaps still has a long way to go to create his niche in the Mumbai film industry.
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