Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan has an interesting, even thought-provoking, premise. The year is 1947. India is going to be partitioned according to the Radcliff Line. That line runs through a brothel owned by Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). Nearly everyone is happy that India’s getting independence, except her. And why should she be happy? Because, according to her, whether India’s independent or not, its women – irrespective of caste, class, or religion – will always remain oppressed, will always be treated like second-class citizens. Begum Jaan’s anger and cynicism is all the more discomfiting because even 70 years later, many women in many parts of the country are still fighting for their rights. Begum Jaan, then, asks an important question: What exactly has changed since 1947?
Mukherji seems to be asking this almost directly in the film’s first five minutes. A girl in Delhi, in 2016, is running away from a bunch of men, fearing a sexual assault. Suddenly, an older woman comes in front of her, stares at the men, her face registering no emotion, and starts taking off her clothes. The men are appalled, asking her to stop. Behind them, in the distance, the Indian tricolour on a tall flagpole bears silent witness. This scene, designed to shock, hits you hard. And you don’t mind its audacity, because some truths should aim for the solar plexus. Begum Jaan then cuts from now to then, from 2016 to 1947.
Begum Jaan is interested in asking the right questions, but if intent alone guaranteed execution, then bad films wouldn’t exist. Because there’s much in the film that seems contrived, trying hard to impress, without getting the basics right. A remake of the 2015 Bengali drama Rajkahini, also directed by Mukherji, who’s making his first Hindi film, Begum Jaan is, first and foremost, unnecessarily loud and disappointingly superficial. Granted, a film on the lives of sex workers who are uneducated and marginalised will probably not be restrained (and not that subtlety is a necessary marker of assured filmmaking), but Begum Jaan relentlessly hunts for our attention at the cost of telling a compelling story, which is a put-off.
To begin with, Mukherji struggles in sustaining a mood, often disrupting the film’s flow with needless songs. There’s a song on Holi, a song when Indians and Pakistanis cross the border, a song when a local king (Naseeruddin Shah) visits the brothel. Mukherji, it seems, is constantly trying to hammer home a point, forbidding us to create our own meanings. It’s the kind of filmmaking that’s woefully short of confidence and fundamentally insecure. It’s 2017, and we want our filmmakers to, at least now, stop handholding their audiences, stop guiding them where to look, what to listen to.
And it’s this insistence – on underscoring a moment, a scene, a motif – that mars Begum Jaan. It’s evident in the way key scenes are written and performed. For instance, early in the film, Rubina (Gauahar Khan), a prostitute, is talking to Surjeet (Pitobash Tripathy), the brothel’s handyman and pimp, who secretly likes her. During the course of their conversation, though, he ends up saying that he’s in “lub” – love – with her. This proclamation of love, heightened by its delivery in English, impresses and amuses Rubina. This scene, till a point, is both heartfelt and funny, but Mukherji keeps stretching it, making it loud and obvious, ultimately diluting its emotional heft.
Elsewhere in the film, two officers – Hari Prasad Srivastav (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilias (Rajit Kapoor), from India and Pakistan, in charge of executing the Radcliff Line – meet each other after a long time. They’re friends whose families have been ravaged by the communal riots. This scene, too, held some promise, but Mukherji ruins the set-up, for he films it in a wide-shot with the two men at the extreme ends of the frame, with exactly half their faces visible. Mukherji keeps alternating between the actors’ solo shots and them being in the same frame, needlessly distracting us, drawing attention to craft. He also probably believes this style is rather inventive, for he repeats it later in the film, in a different scene with the same actors. (And no, the probable intent – of a partitioned face, a part of a whole, in a film centred on Partition – isn’t lost on us; it is, in fact, painfully obvious.)
Begum Jaan, especially in its second half, moves quickly from passable to forgettable, for it doesn’t have a meaty story to tell. There’s a fair amount of narrative padding – an old women in the brothel recounts the tales of famous Indian women (the Rani of Jhansi, Radha, Razia Sultan) to a young girl – that burdens the film with unnecessary flashbacks. Begum Jaan is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get drama, but it just doesn’t have enough to hold our attention, intrigue us further. At times, the characters slip into schmaltzy quasi-monologues, tuning us out; certain scenes are repeated for dramatic effect; the acting, too, is quite uneven.
Which is strange, for Begum Jaan is helmed by Balan, who can single-handedly transform a film. But in a drama packed to the gills, leaving no scope for improvisation or interpretation, she can do precious little. It’s quite clear that throughout the film, Mukherji wants to shock and shake us, prodding us towards an uncomfortable reality. And he wants to do that by making the film melodramatic, where the oppressed are giving it back to their oppressors in their own language: violence. But good intentions also need to meet good craftsmanship; the abundance of one can’t compensate for the lack of another.