Begum Jaan movie review: Vidya Balan and feminism deserve better than this soulless film
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Harlot, whore, streetwalker, prostitute, hooker, call girl or (the politically correct) sex worker … call her what you will, but a woman who plies the sex trade, is rarely viewed by society as a mistress of her own will or one whose opinion matters.
Writer-director Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan is the story of one such woman, madam of a brothel on the outskirts of a town in pre-Independence Punjab. The year is 1947 and the Radcliffe Line has been drawn by the British to demarcate India and the newly forming Pakistan. As it happens, the line runs through Begum Jaan’s brothel. When she refuses to quit her home to make way for a barbed wire fence, she finds herself crossing swords with officials of both countries who in turn are helpless at the hands of a law they do not necessarily agree with.
Begum Jaan has so far prided herself on her power, since her kottha is frequented by everyone in town, from ordinary folk to the local raja, freeloading policemen and British officials. Hierarchies of class, caste and religion may be forgotten when these men visit her to quench their lust, but she soon discovers that she is up against forces much higher than anyone she has ever known. Still, Begum Jaan, her women and their male staff — creatures deemed most ravaged by society and most subservient to it – decide that they will not give in lying down.
The film is about the battle between them and the officials assigned to execute the Radcliffe Line. It is a fascinating concept.
Begum Jaan is Srijit Mukherji’s remake of his own 2015 Bengali film Rajkahini (Tale of The Raj) with Rituparna Sengupta in the title role. The Hindi version stars Vidya Balan as the protagonist.
From the opening scene of the Hindi film, where an unlikely saviour wards off a young woman’s potential rapists, two things are evident: that Mukherji intends to make a big statement about female empowerment, and that his statement will come through self-defeating expressions and a limited understanding of his cause.
It is bad enough that Begum Jaan is confused about what it wants to say. What is worse is that it is so pretentious and superficial, that it fails to plow past its grand intent to find a soul.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
It goes without saying that everything about Begum Jaan’s brothel, from its location to its occupants and customers, is intended as a metaphor for a happily multi-cultural India being torn apart against her will. Parallel to their lives, an old woman in the kottha (played by Ila Arun) narrates stories of legendary queens from Indian history and myth, who stood up to an ancient patriarchal world on their own terms, among them Rani Laxmibai, Razia Sultan, Krishna bhakt Meera and Padmavati.
Three of these women are also played by Balan, Padmavati is described in a voiceover.
These satellite tales of valour mirror the film’s central saga of brave women defying convention and refusing to be subjugated. Sadly, they also reflect the filmmaker’s skewed notions of female honour, most especially when he appears to equate the historical Laxmibai, a real woman who fought the British till her dying breath, to the mythical Padmavati, who is glorified by folklore for having thrown herself into a fire so that an invading emperor would not get his hands on her.
The messaging and metaphors of Begum Jaan are all mixed up, as exemplified by the romanticisation of Padmavati’s ‘sacrifice’. Contemporary Indian notions of female ‘izzat’ (honour) have not evolved beyond a woman’s life being seen as less valuable than her unraped body; a position that goes against what Begum Jaan stands for until the self-contradictory end.
Perhaps we should expect nothing more from a film which, early on, unquestioningly quotes Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem about Laxmibai, Jhansi Ki Rani, in which courage is casually described as a masculine quality: “Khoob ladi mardaani, voh toh Jhansi waali rani thhi” (she who fought like a man, she was the queen of Jhansi).
Mukherji may argue that Chauhan meant well. Fair enough. But what is one to make of Begum Jaan’s opening dedication to Urdu literary stalwarts Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto in the context of crucial scenes that completely miss the point of Manto’s Khol Do?
The short story Khol Do was about a girl so traumatised by repeated rape during Partition riots that as a reflex action she undresses herself on hearing a male voice. That story was not just about the survivor’s mental state but about her continuing worth as a human being. Mukherji is so literal in his interpretation of Manto’s text that I wanted to cry.
In scenes where a very old lady and a very young girl replicate Khol Do’s heroine’s actions, Mukherji also unwittingly betrays an oddly benevolent, muddled view of male rapists resulting from thoroughly misplaced ideas of sexual violence.
With the writing so inadequate, everything about the film ends up being ineffectual. It is impossible to feel for Begum Jaan or the women in her brothel because they are not women, they are broad brushstrokes illustrating Mukherji’s surface-level interpretation of female strength.
The acting is constrained by the weak script. And so, Balan – who has been so wonderful in the past – sits here with legs akimbo and issues one-liners in a monotone, but is unable to dig deep and summon up a relatable human being, because there is nothing in the writing that she can dig into. Those one-liners are amusing at first, but sound empty after a point. We see a flash of the gifted artiste we know her to be in a scene where she watches as a customer forces himself on a new recruit…but only a flash.
The supporting cast of fine actors — including Pallavi Sharda and Gauahar Khan as women in the kottha, Pitobash as their pimp and Naseeruddin Shah as a ruler of the region — are all in the same boat. Sharda and Khan fare somewhat better than the rest.
The greatest victims of the film’s intellectual pretentions are Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapur playing one-time friends turned government officials on opposite sides of the border. The actors’ faces are often half cut off the edge of the screen by Gopi Bhagat’s camera, no doubt again as a metaphor for a nation being torn apart against its will. In a film that fails to come together as a whole, it is an irritating device.
Among the many half-cooked aspects of this half-cooked film is Javed-Ejaz’s action. Except for the first scene in which the women use physical force to send government officials and police packing, they seem grossly unprepared for battle. Gutsy does not mean foolhardy and stupid yet that, in effect, is what they are in the climactic confrontation.
These elements might have been better developed if the director had not been so distracted by what appears to be his primary goal. Everything about Begum Jaan is dwarfed by its transparent ambition to be an epic of great intellectual depth and a lofty feminist statement.
No ism can work in cinema without characters who evoke empathy. The starting point of a film has to be a great story, not a great cause. Feminism deserves advocates with a better understanding of both cinema and the movement. Begum Jaan’s intriguing basic concept deserves a writer who could have expanded on it to better effect. And the lovely Vidya Balan deserves better than this soulless film.