Begum Jaan, the official remake of the 2015 Bengal movie Rajkahini, is set during the partition in 1947, and how a brothel becomes an unfortunate victim. Directed by Srijit Mukherji, who also made the original, it stars Vidya Balan in the lead, with a strong ensemble cast. Here’s our review of the movie…
What’s it about
Begum Jaan begins, surprisingly in 2016, where a group of drunk hooligans pesters a girl and her boyfriend in a bus in Delhi (of course, where else? Delhi is suddenly turning out to be Bollywood’s favourite crime den). As they drag the girl out, two of the goons chase her, an old woman comes between them and strips off her clothes, making them cringe in embarrassment and back off. It is on this uncomfortable note that the movie begins, before taking us back 70 years ago when India and Pakistan are ready to get divided, never mind that millions died in the process, and thousands of women are gang raped. The border line that British drew dividing India and West Pakistan also goes through a brothel in Punjab. The said brothel is under the care of Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan), a strong woman who takes care of every need of her workers, as well controlling them with an iron fist. She enjoys the patronage of a sleazy local king (Naseeruddin Shah), which gives her confidence to take on any bad customers and interfering policemen. Some of her girls are victims of rape and family disownment. There is also a Masterji (Vivek Mushran), who roams around the brothel under the pretext of social welfare, and is eyed by one of the sex workers there, played by Pallavi Sharda. Trouble comes when the administrators in charge of creating the border fence (Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor) orders her to evict the house, and she challenges them instead. With a bloodthirsty goon (Chunky Pandey) thrown in the mix, the movie heads towards a violent and depressing conclusion.
Vidya Balan is one of the movie’s biggest strong points, which I am afraid, are not many. She is in fine form in the role of the brash uncouth, and domineering brothel-madam, and this is her boldest performance since The Dirty Picture. However, the director insists on making her shout and scream a lot (like the rest of the female characters here), though it is in the quieter moments, that we see the strength of her acting ability. Many of the veteran actors in the cast also perform well, but the standouts are Vivek Mushran, Naseeruddin Shah and a really menacing Chunky Pandey. Among Begum Jaan’s coterie, Pallavi Sharda and Gauahar Khan have some arc and they deliver good performances. Some scenes do manage to make an impact, be it the Naseeruddin Shah’s creepy request to Begum or Begum Jaan dissing the significance of independence, when it comes to her profession. Anu Malik’s music is really fine, making us wonder why the composer doesn’t work more on movies these days. However, the song placement in the movie jars. ALSO READ: Begum Jaan quick movie review: Vidya Balan towers among the rest with her strong performance
While the premise may be strong and hard-hitting, but it is weakened by a loud, cluttered and a melodramatic screenplay. The movie drags a lot and is filled with quite some unnecessary scenes that were written in the name of character development. Like the sob stories of both the administrators, that make them talk and talk about how victimised their communities are, but nothing os this sorts reflects in their action. Their sudden repentant u-turn towards the end of the movie is unintentionally funny. Also the depiction of the camaraderie between the brothel inhabitants seem very forced and too loud. Begum Jaan’s character herself is not exactly well-developed – she comes off too arrogant and selfish for your liking, and doesn’t make you connect with the character. So when things turn dark for her and her workers, we don’t feel much for them. The movie takes its own sweet time to get to the point, the partition, drama and even after that, the handling of the crisis is shoddily done. The director also insists on taking a bold approach, especially the scene with Gauahar Khan and Pitobash near the riverside, but it looks too out-of-place because it is inserted right between the scene where Begum challenges the administrators. The cinematography is just ordinary, while the editing leaves a lot to be desired.
What to do
Begum Jaan has a strong premise, and strong turns from certain cast members, especially Vidya Balan. But a theatrical approach to the subject and a weak narrative mar the product. Watch it only if you are a Vidya Balan fan and can stomach too much melodrama.