With a hard-hitting subject matter, feminist statements galore to make, and a bunch of actors that read like the crem-dela-crem of Bollywood performer, one would expect Begum Jaan to be an enriching experience at the very least. To Director Srijit Mukherji’s credit, he does use these tools at his disposal to create certain astounding moments, which leave an indelible mark on our psyches. Alas, they’re few and far between, and appear like straws that you need to clutch at to prevent your concentration from wavering during the more-disappointing portions of the movie.
The story is set between two villages somewhere along what’s today deemed as an indo-Pak border. Begum Jaan aka Vidya Balan runs her palatial-esque brothel with an iron hand, big heart, and her own set of rules. The laws of the land don’t apply to her. The king’s blessing is on her head. And not a soul would dare cross her. However, even she could neither envisage nor prepare for what was to come next. The British leave India, which also means that a separate state of Pakistan is formed, resulting in a border all along the land and millions of displaced folks.
When two government officers apprise her that the border would be drawn right through the middle of her brothel, Begum Jaan simply laughs off their warning. When things heat up, she seeks the king’s aid, only to be told that post Independence, royalty would no longer treated as such in the country. So, with no succor coming from the outside, and pressure mounting by the minute, Begum and her assorted gang of whores decide to take on the incoming forces themselves.
Mukherji and his cowriter, Kausar Munir’s screenplay, is taut and to the point. The issue with that is it allows very little time for us to get to know the feisty girls residing in the brothel and connect with their personalities. In fact, it’s even difficult to feel for their plight because their attachment to the brothel and their stories associated with it is not dwelt upon enough. Nevertheless, the actresses playing these roles do such a fine job that every time the script or Direction gets dreary, they infuse life into it and hook you back in, with Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, and Ila Arun being the standout performers among those who live under Balan’s care and protection.
If the tracks of the prostitutes meander and lose steam, then those with the government officials are completely disjointed and almost seem like a documentary. There’s just too much off preaching, Hindu-Muslim propaganda dialogues, and subpar editing involving them. However, once again, it takes two seasoned performers like Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor to wade through the debris and force you to pay attention to their characters’ arcs. Whenever their characters appear out of nowhere, many a time at the expense of obstructing the flow of the story, these fine actors do everything possible to keep the film afloat.
Towering above them all and above the film as a whole is the indefatigable Vidya Balan, who powers her way through everything – be it slipshod Direction, disjointed scenes, boring moments, and also her fellow cast members – to come up with a performance on par with her Dirty Picture and Kahaani master-classes. It’s a pity that one of the finest acts by a lady of Indian cinema has come in a film that wouldn’t be remembered for long. She rivets you to the seat with her eyes alone and her body language make you sway with every movement of her anatomy, yet you’re compelled to stifle a yawn and check your watch intermittently through the film.
There are a few side-plots, too, involving the legendary Naseeruddin Shah as a king, Chunky Pandey as a killer for hire, Pitobash Tripathy as the brothel’s help who’s in love with one of the girls, and Vivek Mushran as a professor who’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Just like with the rest of the film, their appearances spell promise but their arcs quickly fall by the wayside. Naseer has two scenes where in his role seems like an afterthought – yet he leaves an impression like only he can – Chunky’s killer instincts and diabolical preparations are poorly handled – but he proves that he’s so much more than footnotes in forgettable comedies – Pitobash’s role has a bit of life – and he’s superb in it – while Mushran’s track is the most unexplained and confounding of the film – and, this time, the actor, too, seems horribly miscast. The songs, too, do little to lift the spirit of a film that’s trying to be too heavy and too serious in every moment.
To Srijit Mukherji’s credit, some of the scenes he weaves are so profound and unforgettable that they almost appear like aberrations in his film. The confrontation scene between Balan and the government officers when they read her eviction notice; one where a young girl disrobes to shame a cop who wants to rape her mother; and another that involves the mutilation of a dog make you want to love the film more than you really should. Such scenarios and the acting make Begum Jaan a worthier product than it has any right to be. Alas, for a film trying to make a burning feminist statement, it says very little. More importantly, with such a brilliant subject on hand, a lot more could have been done with Begum Jaan.
Movified Rating: 2.5/5
Images Source: Vishesh