“You have one month to empty this kotha (brothel)!” says Ilias (Rajit Kapoor). Something told me that the repartee by Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) would invoke dates and menses, and there it was. It wasn’t even particularly powerful, and it is this predictability that haunts director Srijit Mukherji’s eponymous Begum Jaan (Mrs. Jaan). Written by Mukherji and Kausar Munir, and based on the director’s 2015 Bengali outing, Rajkahini, this isn’t the only creaky gear in the high-on-ambition project. The director moves in for a kill, and achieves with precision and clarity, an overkill of just about everything.
The intent is all good, and the historical basis of Begum Jaan is as powerful as they come – the implementation of the extremely manipulative and divisive Radcliffe Line, that would forever change India and its future with its surgically created neighbor, Pakistan. Enforcing this line for officials Ilias and Harshvardhan (Ashish Vidyarthi) means that they ought to put in barbed wires across the brothel, that’ll cleave the spacious courtyard into two countries. And that’s something that makes the brothel owner, Begum Jaan, see red. In the limited universe of her eleven girls, an old lady – Amma (Ila Arun, telling stories of brave women in Indian history, that add no specific layer except lead to a climactic story) – a burly guard Salim Mirza (Sumit Nijhawan), and a heart-of-gold pimp, Surjeet (Pitobash Tripathy), she rules, protected and exploited by the local king, Rajaji (Naseeruddin Shah in a haplessly written role that doesn’t ask him to flex any of his renowned acting muscles.)
Ilias and Harshwardhan proceed to employ a local goon, Kabir (Chunky Pandey) to ensure the brothel is evicted, and this is a call-to-arms as far as the feisty Jaan is concerned. Mirza becomes the rifle-shooting coach, ensuring the girls cock a gun as well as they cock a snook. There’s also a local teacher, Master (Vivek Mushran in a role that feels more appendix than heart), whose munificent gifts ensure the girls enjoy festivals with glitter and glory. And before I forget, let me also salute the local constabulary, headed by Shyam Singh (Rajesh Sharma). There’s at least 7-8 sub-plots involving Master, Surjeet and the girls. These plots do not include the other sub-plots that intend to give you a peek into the girls’ tours and travails. Plus, of course, the somber tête-à-têtes between Ilias and Harshwardhan, as they ponder on the political move that’s also causing a splinter in their friendship. (In a thoroughly unintentionally comic scene, when an official arrives at one of their residences late evening to inform them that Begum Jaan’s unrelenting, both the gentlemen are sitting on the same couch, the table in front of them laden with whisky and glass. This might smack of nit-picking, but who sits like that while mulling over the country’s fate? Face-to-face seating might have added some dramatic dynamics to the scene.)
You get the picture, though. There’s just too much going on, and there’s simply too many messages that the director tries to stuff in, and there are times you are plain weary with it all, wishing Begum Jaan would cave in, and snuff out the enterprise in time for your favorite beverage. Even some of the shots that director Mukherji executes, that first appear innovative – his use of half-facial close ups between Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor, ostensibly to symbolize the partition – become overdone and borderline pretentious. Begum Jaan, then, groans and moans under the weight of its own ambition and canvas, with the result that it teeters when it ought to have been striding magnificently; it stumbles where it ought to have been rousing.
And yet, you can’t escape some messages the movie transmits through all the viscous and obtuse plot lines. You will think about the absolutely politically expedient and completely botched up partition of India. The political players got what they wanted, people like you and I were uprooted, attacked, hunted down, and were denationalized. Begum Jaan also makes you think about how, even if India did achieve a morally questionable freedom at midnight, it meant and still means zilch to women forced into the flesh trade, for them the light at the end of the tunnel another customer in search of release. And there’s still no freedom for women, for who can guarantee their safety, if they venture out at night?
Anu Malik scores a respectable-sounding soundtrack, especially the lovely Prem Mein Tohre (sung by the still-in-control-but-sounding-slightly-jaded Asha Bhosle and later by Kavita Seth) – but this number too, sounding as if remade from Sandesh Shandilya’s goose-bumpy, misty-eyed melody, Aaoge Jab Tum (Jab We Met), that in turn descended from Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s haunting and affecting classic, Gore Gore Chand Se Mukh Pe (Anita) that Mukesh sung as only he could. The background music, on the other hand, is anything but that, much like the script, not knowing when to let go. But the show stealer in the soundtrack is the reprised classic by composer Khayyam, lyricist Sahir, and singers Mukesh and Asha Bhosle – Wo Subah Kabhi To Ayegi (here, Wo Subah, with minor lyrical mukhda changes, and sung by Shreya Ghoshal and Arijit Singh) – the number effectively wallops you into silence and stuns, the Khayyam-Sahir magic doing in under five minutes what the movie struggled to do for 120.
Begum Jaan boasts of some very good performances as well, but at some point, all of them bogged down by some redundant and nugatory scenes. But look out for some strong impact by Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Indrani Chakraborty, and Pitobash Tripathy. Chunky Pandey has some deliciously villainous moments that he feasts with as much pleasure as the corn on the cob in his introductory scene. But it is Vidya Balan who displays acting bravado, she the steely, hardwired support to all of the movie’s deformations, deflections, and digressions. The actor is in fine form, her powerful voice modulation husky and sensual, seducing and controlling you at once. Note the shot where’s she’s on the rooftop, the scene a beautifully dusk-lit capture, she surveying all that she controls and will inevitably lose. Her eyes are a furnace-fired brimstone of defiance and anger, moistened by helplessness and adamant energy. And you realize that she’s so good, she didn’t need those artificial green-tinted lenses, just as she didn’t this tiresome script.
Begum Jaan is rated A (Restricted to adults). There’s violence, nudity, and horror of horrors, Vidya Balan employing abusive language.
Director Srijit Mukherji Running Time 1h 59 minutes
Writers Srijit Mukherji, Kausar Munir
Stars Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Vivek Mushran, Chunky Pandey, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda
Genres Action, Drama
Watch the trailer of Begum Jaan here: