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Deafening Melodrama

Monday, April 17, 2017

Begum Jaan
Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Rajit Kapur, Ashish Vidyarthi and others
Rating: * ½

Srijit Mukherji’s 'Begum Jaan' is the Hindi version of his Bengali film, 'Rajkahini', which does not move beyond its interesting premise.

After the British have partitioned India, and the Radcliffe Line is drawn, on the Indo-Pak border, it is meant to cross through a palatial brothel, so the madam, Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) is served an eviction notice, by the Hindu Shrivastav and the Muslim Ilyas (Rajit Kapur), government officials from each side. They used to be childhood friends, but the partition has divided them so that Mukherji often has just half their face in the frame.

Begum Jaan’s brothel has a mix of women of all castes and regions, who have been disowned by their families. The latest addition is a catatonic rape victim dumped at the door by her father. Begum slaps her out of her stupor and tells the other women to deal with her. The mixed moral messages and hypocrisy of 'Begum Jaan' could fill many pages. A woman who is ostracised by society has no option but to sell her body—Begum was a widow herself—but she has to prove her distaste or unwillingness, by staring at the ceiling when a man is in her bed, and very often break into loud, hysterical shrieks.

Begum, for all her bluster-- and occasional trite pronouncements about a woman’s sorry fate, or a brothel being beyond caste and religious differences-- depends on a man to guard them, and a debauched raja (Naseeruddin Shah—why?) to protect them from the powers that be. Begum Jaan talks of being a mother to her girls, but does not give them the option of refusing—she throws a reluctant young woman at the raja when he demands novelty.

Compared to the very strong Rukmini Bai of Shyam Benegal’s 'Mandi' (played by the redoubtable Shabana Azmi), from which this film is obviously inspired, Begum Jaan is a wimp. First of all, when so many citizens of both countries were thrown out of their homes, why is the audience expect to sympathise with a woman who does not want to leave her mansion? If the film was satirical, or truly tragic, it would still make sense, but 'Begum Jaan' is just shrill melodrama. Why, for instance, would a man who has seen his own wife disrobed and murdered, be more affected by the deaths of women who mean nothing to him? Why would a cruel cop be thrown off his track by a girl taking off her clothes?

Pardon the spoilers, but according to Mukherji, when faced with murderous mobs of men, a woman should either strip or like Padmavati (an old woman – Ila Arun—in the brothel tells stories of legendary women from history), throw themselves into a fire?

Deafeningly loud and cliché-ridden, 'Begum Jaan' falls heavily on the shoulders of Vidya Balan, who speaks in a bass voice and squints through hookah smoke to emphasise her badass credentials, but the character that could have been complex remains awkwardly superficial.

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