You know it is going to be an intense film when the opening scene shows a young couple in a bus in Delhi being accosted by a group of drunk men. Memories of the chilling tale from December 2012 come gushing back. Holding fort to that is a character (reminiscent of the Manipur mothers who protested naked against the custodial rape and murder of one of their own), an old woman shielding a younger one who might as well have been Nirbhaya. Men will bow before motherly figures, as the beginning of the film shows, or their daughters, as the last scene depicts. How does this explain the rape and brutality that women well past their prime, and those who have not even completed one year of their lives, go through? But that is another thread.
Begum Jaan, played by Vidya Balan, who we now associate with strong women characters, is the head of a brothel that is situated, literally and figuratively, in the India-Pakistan border as the Radcliffe line is demarcated in August 1947. The story then becomes a metaphor for several aspects: motherland, women, home, divisions...
Begum Jaan, along with two men, leads a group of 11 young women hailing from different backgrounds living under her roof; One cooks, cares and entertains them, while the other safeguards and teaches them how to pull the trigger. Master(Vivek Mushran), an educated local teacher, seems to be looking out for them but ends up being a conniving character after he feels slighted. The film touches upon gender politics, but doesn't delve deeper. Going into history's strong women like Rani of Jhansi, Razia Sultan, Padmavati and linking the present with the past and future has been used as a storytelling device by Amma (Ila Arun) while caring for the younger girls in the brothel.
Naseeruddin Shah, as the local king under whose patronage Begum Jaan manages to run her little kingdom, is shown as a tired old man who knows his kind is going to fade away from glory as political forces gain traction. Chunky Pandey as Kabir—in a short but significant role of a fringe group leader telling you there is a monetary price to everything in life—plays the cold-hearted killer with a surprisingly chilling intensity. His character is a reminder of how divisive such elements can be when allowed to run amok. Competent is not exactly the word one wants to use for Balan, who has played similar characters which seem far better etched. In this, she has stretched herself as much as the script could have allowed.
Begum Jaan (remake of a 2015 Bengali film Rajkahani) is a well-intentioned, highly emotive film made from multiple ingredients, served angry, but it misses a central flavour or a clear aim that would leave us with an idea to ruminate on or take us beyond what we know—the several strands it touches upon, however inadvertently, seem to have possibilities. Oh, and the sheer irony—the film that talks about politics of division between the two countries has been banned in Pakistan.
Film: Begum Jaan
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Ila Arun, Chunky Pandey, Vivek Mushran
Rating: 2.5 / 5