Begum Jaan starts with one of the most hard hitting opening sequences I have ever seen.
The scene — all about two minutes long — is set at Connaught Place in 2016, and is eerily similar to the Nirbhaya incident. It's painful, and gives you quite the jolt.
Then, we travel back in time to 1947 when independence came to India — at the cost of Partition.
Begum Jaan, played by Vidya Balan, is the madam of a brothel. From the unibrow to the contact lens, Vidya is perfection as the Begum.
There's a scene when a new girl is brought to the brothel after she was raped and she is in a state of complete shock. She has stopped responding to anything — until Begum slaps her out of her stupor, until she has a cathartic breakdown.
It's a strong scene, just one of many more to come.
When the girls in the brothel get carried away in the spirit of fun, it is Begum who brings them back to earth. She is strong and appears hard-hearted; what that really means is that she cares deeply — and has a different way of showing it.
Above all, the Begum means business.
Next in line for the laurels is Pallavi Sharda. Her character Gulabo — among the sex workers at the brothel with a traumatic past — doesn't get enough screen time in the first half of the film, but is still a treat to watch. She is also in love with a man who frequently visits the brothel with books and sweets. Pallavi retains her screen presence even when she's sharing the frame with Vidya, and there's no evidence of the vast experience gap between the two actors — and that's saying something!
And we certainly can't leave out mention of Gauahar Khan. After a turn as a no-nonsense cop in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Gauahar is back with a scene-stealing turn in Begum Jaan. One sequence in particular, where she explains her life to the man she loves, is poignant and powerful.
But no more details to spoil the plot for you.
Suffice it to say that by half time, we're at the main crux of the story: The government has issued an eviction notice to Begum and the brothel's inmates since the Radcliffe Line that divides India from Pakistan is to pass through the property.
The dialogues are strong, painful and riveting. While all of these are beautifully done, and the performances are the biggest highlights, the problem for the viewer by the end of the first half is the different layers to the story, all going on concurrently, and the way they've been put together. It seems a tad abrupt, but this is not that huge of an issue. In fact, it may even add to the 'feel' of the film.
What one hopes for with the first half, is for it to build up to a grand second half, which will include riveting appearances by Naseeruddin Shah and Chunky Pandey.
So does the second half of Begum Jaan deliver?
The answer, is an unequivocal yes.
Defeating the curse of the second half, Begum Jaan gets stronger and better.
You'll come across a scene where Naseeruddin Shah's character is having sex with one of the women of the brothel, while the Begum (Vidya) sings for him in the same room! As a king who is losing his power because of Partition, Shah's character is in the grey zone. And while perfection from Shah is something you take for granted, the surprise lies in the form of Chunky Pandey. He plays the polar opposite of the roles he's been seen in so far, as the the villain here who the government appoints to the brothel evicted. He's ruthless, and finds the worst possible ways to inflict pain on Begum and her women.
The strongest parts of the movie are its script and dialogues. The narrative is layered and the dialogues are powerful. The performances are each better than the other.
Here, however, are the problems: Starting with the cinematography... let's just say that the cinematographer was a little too experimental. Not very good looking handheld shots in one scene coupled with abrupt editing switches and cuts — didn't work for me.
And then there's the ending, which encapsulates the entire story in a minute — which makes you wonder if the filmmakers thought the audience wasn't intelligent enough to have figured that out after two hours of viewing time!
Vidya usually grabs your attention in all her movies. But this movie has all of its actors performing to the fullest and it's hard to point out who is better than the other.
Begum Jaan is strong, inspiring, shocking, and more than anything — heart-wrenching. Don't forget to take your handkerchief (or tissues!) along.
Watch the trailer for Begum Jaan here:
Published Date: Apr 13, 2017 11:29 pm | Updated Date: Apr 14, 2017 12:02 pm