Srijit Mukerji’s Begum Jaan is a mostly faithful remake of his 2015 Bengali movie Rajkahini – which means that the sensationalist plot, overwrought storytelling, screechy acting and tabloid account of the Partition have made it across the language divide unchallenged.
The Hindi version, which is set in Punjab rather than the Bengal region, has shed several dispensable minutes, but the central premise stays: the conflation of the woman’s body and the country. A brothel smack on the border of India and the newly formed Pakistan refuses to shut shop and move. The brothel madam, the fearsome and foul-mouthed Begum Jaan of the title, wants to stop the march of history, or at least stall it. Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) has had the patronage of the local king (Naseeruddin Shah) for years, and her aggressive body language and profanity-laden speech disappear when he appears. Before him, this spitting tigress is a purring cat – so much for being a woman with a mind of her own.
Representatives of India and Pakistan (played by Rajit Kapur and Ashish Vidyarthi) are unable to shake Begum Jaan’s position. Ignoring the swell of refugees crossing the border on both sides, Begum Jaan rebels against a decision she had nothing to do with, stays glued to her porch, and shouts down the unwelcome visitors. It is left to the movie’s best character, mercenary for hire Kabir (Chunky Pandey), to finish off what they started.
Mukerji borrows freely from Shyam Benegal’s classic Mandi (1983) as well as oral accounts of the Partition to craft a bottom-down version of history. The horrors of the division of India in 1947 are seen over the shoulders of women who have been trading their bodies, and Mukerji demands that they be taken seriously.
It sounds like a wonderful and welcome alternative to mansplaining – but perhaps it might have been more effective if the movie had opted for subtlety rather than crudeness and the women had been flesh-and-blood rather than paper-thin. The arms akimbo stance, outward jutting hips, and revealing clothing are all from Mandi, but Begum Jaan doesn’t have a single character worth rooting for. Gauhar Khan plays the madam’s helper, who is in love with the in-house entertainer Sujit (Pitobash Tiwary); Pallavi Sharda’s Gulabo lusts for the saintly teacher (Vivek Mushran) who has a thing for Begum Jaan; Mishti is the young rape victim whom Begum Jaan shelters.
Mukerji is unable to suggest a working or professional relationship between these women who live under the same roof, which makes their latter-reel solidarity unconvincing.
The usually dependable Vidya Balan struggles to make her Partition denier act work, and barely improves on the pantomime qualities of the original actress, Rituparna Sengupta. Mukerji regards the madam as an incarnation of mythic heroines such as Laxmibai of Jhansi and Razia Sultan – yet another instance of the on-the-nose writing and in-your-face characterisation – but Begum Jaan’s rebellion comes off as obduracy rather than a middle finger to the colonial and post-colonial forces who took far-reaching decisions without caring for how they would play out.
There’s a lot of yelling and cussing (some of which has been tempered by the easily shocked censor board) before the inevitable boobs-versus-bullets battle. Lost in the rumpus is the opportunity to dramatise the very real violence that women faced before and during the Partition. A sequence set in the present day, which bookends the plot, is clumsily handled but is also effective in pointing out that women often pay the price for achieving freedom. Their stories are not always told, so Srijit Mukerji takes it upon himself to do so – by shouting at the top of his voice so as to be heard all the way till the every edge of Pakistan.