Begum Jaan vs Rajkahini: Vidya Balan's character more feminine, says director Srijit Mukherji
After seven years of a film career in the Bengali film industry, screen writer-director-actor Srijit Mukherji, who came into the limelight with his debut film – critically and commercially successful Autograph (2010) — has turned to Bollywood with Begum Jaan, starring Vidya Balan.
The original, Bengali version, Rajkahini which had Rituparna Sengupta in the lead, was also directed by National award winning director Srijit and it was the biggest blockbuster of 2015.
Set at the backdrop of the Independence, Rajkahini was weaved around a border between the two nations that runs through a brothel housing 11 women. Srijit had initially envisaged the project as bilingual in Hindi and Bengali to be shot in parallel “like the good old days in the 70s and 80s”.
“I went to Vidya(Balan) with the initial project for both the versions but at that time she was not in a position to do it and it got postponed. Then I started planning the film in Bengali alone, for which I approached Rituparna. Rajkahini went to a number of film festivals and it got several awards,” says Srijit, adding:
"Before Rajkahini’s release, I had come down to Mumbai to check the subtitles and that is when Mahesh Bhatt saw the film and he expressed his desire to do it in Hindi. First he suggested to dub the film because he wanted the story to reach out to people, but I felt that in dubbing, the original flavour would be lost. So we decided to transform it totally into Hindi and make it like a new film. That is how Begum Jaan was born, and that is when Bhatt suggested Vidya’s name. I was more than happy.”
While Vidya portrays the role of a madam in a brothel, in Begum Jaan, actresses like Pallavi Sharda of Besharam fame, Gauahar Khan, Flora Saini of Dhanak, TV actress Ridheema Tiwari, Raviza Chauhan and Poonam Rajput are few others who will be seen in significant roles.
Srijit says that Vidya’s such a delight to work with that he would want to cast her in every film of his. “Vidya is brave, ruthless and a relentless actress. She leaves no stone un-turned when it comes to getting into a character, she takes it to a finite end, that is her specialty,” said Srijit, further adding, “We had a one month workshop before the shoot. First 20 days was a psychological workshop with Vidya and the remaining 10 days it was about the physical handling of guns and exercise."
"During psychological workshop, Vidya would ask me several questions concerning the back story of Begum Jaan, her childhood, her youth, how was she abused, how was she exploited, what was the reaction... she is a delight to work with. I once jokingly told her that she should be there in every film of mine even if there was no woman character. With her level of preparation she can perhaps pull of even a male character.”
Srijit says that Begum Jaan has been rewritten for the Hindi version, so there can’t be any comparison between the two roles played by Rituparna and Vidya. “While the plot points and turn of events are the same, characterisation is different because I have added few sequences and layers to Begum Jaan's character which is less masculine. We have shown the softer side of Begum Jaan which is not there in Rajkahini. These two are different Begum Jaans, so it is difficult to compare. There are romantic and maternal aspects that have come out more in the Hindi version. In Bengali version it was much drier, sturdier and more masculine whereas Vidya’s character is more feminine and slightly more attractive," he says.
While insecurity between all the female characters regarding screen space was sorted post the workshop, and it was “understood that it will be an ensemble performance”, there was slight insecurity due to a complete clamp down on make-up by the director.
“I had asked all the female actors to stop tending to themselves, stop waxing, stop going to parlours, stop shaping eyebrows, pedicure, manicure...because I wanted a rustic look. They are all very glamorous women otherwise, so there a bit of insecurity. On a sly they would put little bit of makeup but as a routine I used to sit every morning and make sure that every bit of unnecessary make up was off. I was very particular about that because the look in the film was very important. They couldn’t have had any makeup that made them look extra glamorous,” says Srijit.
Even as Srijit’s Rajkahini went on to win accolades and awards, the film had not pleased all and was panned by quite a few critics. “It is not a crowd pleaser, it ruffles feathers and it takes issues head on. There are people who look away from high octane, hard-hitting, in your face films based on such events. They want to look away from such events. The film is devoid of genteel urban subtleties. I believe that there was nothing subtle about partition or riots and if you want to depict them in a subtle way then I think it is betrayal of the events,” says Srijit.
He continues, “I am aware that Rajkahini got mixed reviews, which is fine with me because this is exactly the way I want to tell my story. But if a film does so well at the box office, at the international film festivals and at the awards, I really don’t have any regrets or complaints. I will never sugar coat.”