Even Vidya Balan cannot help Begum Jaan’s loud, empty feminism

The truth of Partition is stained with blood and brutality.One that burnt homes, took lives and livelihoods, spurred communal violence and triggered a mass exodus between India and Pakistan.

It was a time of uncertainty, incredulity, ill will and inexplicable chaos and there aren’t too many ways to reflect on it without getting sentimental.

But when writer and director Srijit Mukherjee uses this hellish imagery solely for effect, he belittles one of the most horrific chapters in human history.

Full of histrionics and misandry, Begum Jaan shows little understanding of the trauma and impasse afflicting those in its grip.

In a remake of his Bengali hit Rajkahini; Mukherjee reopens old wounds from history to satiate his appetite for raspy melodrama, laboured production design and cosmetic symbolism.

It begins in Amitabh Bachchan’s impassioned voice-over informing us about the British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe and how his hastily drawn border, cutting through Bengal and Punjab, brought about the geographical split of a nation.

Of course, the only purpose it really serves is to form a backdrop for Mukherjee’s bombastic, sepia-soaked work of fiction wherein the unibrowed Begum Jaan’s (Vidya Balan) far-flung, sprawling brothel interferes with topographical technicality; it falls right over the Radcliffe line.

Not one to budge, Begum Jaan’s hostile ways and expletive-rich vocabulary makes her choice amply clear to the authorities delivering the eviction notice.

The officials (Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor), carrying out their respective government’s bureaucratic will, happen to be childhood buddies and the film often side-tracks to suffer their clunky nostalgia in oddly sliced frames to imply Partition. Speaking of their status quo in a tone that is more retrospective than speculating, the duo offers a stiff understanding of administrative compulsions and adds to Begum Jaan‘s dragging pace.

Mukherjee borrows from Shyam Benegal’s Mandi and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Sadaat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai to equip punch lines in a script whose potential for heft is lost in a meandering structure and perverse pleasure for observing sexual violence.

Though not as explicit in its visuals as the original, Begum Jaan confines the ideals of womanhood to her affinity or aversion for sex. The camera swoops right onto a prostitute’s deadpan expression during intercourse or lingers on the lifeless face of young girl slapped out of stupor, forced into mating. 

Begum Jaan adopts crudity to be perceived as potent but flounders every time the characters open their mouth. The sole exception is Chunky Pandey — the actor is virtually unrecognisable in the role of a slimy, smutty, soulless enforcer hired to drive out Begum Jaan and sinks his stained teeth into the part with noticeable relish.

Mostly though, there’s something exploitative and insincere about its brashness, designed to grab attention or congratulate itself over its widespread audacity for featuring nudity, homosexuality and strong language.

And so when Vidya Balan quips about menstruation to make her point, it screams ‘Look, a mainstream star talking like that’ not ‘wow, slayed it.’ While her interpretation of the stern brothel madam is nothing like Rituparna Sengupta’s eerie, cackling control freak, it’s too overblown to appeal.

Depressing to see the efforts of an adventurous actress trifled in a film gloating in its empty feminism and token diversity. Instead of intelligent motives or significant female bonding, Begum Jaan skims through their lives just as cursorily as it gapes at the manufactured crowd of nondescript villagers crossing the border from both directions.

The few who leave an impression in Begum’s bawdy cluster is a spunky Gauahar Khan and her poignant bond with the bordello minion Pitobash Tripathy though some of their scenes are patchily juxtaposed into the narrative as well as is Ila Arun’s storytelling Amma.

In its preoccupation with drama, Begum Jaan neglects to reveal its soul. As a consequence, you feel nothing for the characters, their cause or fate.

Fuelled by stagy impulses till the end, its climatic crossfire is elaborate but of little value. The shabbily picturised sequence of women blindly firing into nowhere upholds Begum Jaan‘s flimsy, ill-defined rebellion where Mukherjee draws epic parallels to their resistance. It is as reckless as Radcliffe’s.

Rating: 2

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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