Begum Jaan is the Hindi remake of the Rituparna Sengupta-starrer Bengali film Rajkahini, also directed by Srijit Mukherji. Starring Vidya Balan as the head of a brothel located on the to-be Radcliffe line dividing the Indian subcontinent into Hindustaan and Pakistaan, Begum Jaan tells the tale of eleven sex workers going up against the powers that are, in order to save a place they call home. As part of the Partition, their home has to go down, their persons have to move out. But, will they?
While the Partition divided land, waters, people, wealth and what not, there were a dozen women who stood their ground. Begum Jaan is their story. A story of resolute defiance, courage and a sense of belonging.
There has been near-unanimous opinion that Begum Jaan is too loud, too noisy, too dramatic, and all this to no avail. I beg to differ.
The movie kicks off instantaneously. Srijit Mukherji opts to keep the film on a high octane right from the word go. From start to finish, there is hardly any breathing space whatsoever. The first half establishes characters and the basic premise pretty decently. Balan’s Begum is authoritative, caring, blunt and brutal, unforgiving, vulnerable – all at once. Always though, she is vibrant. Whatever she does, there is a unique intensity to it, an intensity that’s in-your-face evident sometimes and at others, subdued but unwavering. Pallavi Sharda is smitten, innocent, quietly rebellious and more often than not, unquestioningly trusting. While Gauhar Khan’s character has no real depth, she gets one of the best scenes in the film. Mishti is always expressionless, thanks to her character’s backstory.
The second half is raised to a higher notch altogether. The air becomes tense, lives are lost and relationships are broken. But what remains within the walls of this brothel and in the blood and sweat of its occupants is a single-point agenda: THEY ARE NOT LEAVING.
Acting remains powerful for the most part. Ashish Vidyaarthi and Rajit Kapur, both impeccable actors, do not get enough to showcase their immense talent. Their scenes are weirdly shot, with only a half of the speaker’s face visible while he speaks (and this happens for the both of them). This is probably to symbolize the ongoing Partition but it truly is off-putting. I mean, why did anyone NOT oppose this idea? All the women do their bit. Vidya steals it. Dialogues are appropriate, and their delivery, according to popular opinion right now, is over-the-top, often hitting the rooftops, but I found it all believable. Decibel levels do go up if someone tries to shoo you away from your home, threaten to bring it down to the bits.
At no point did I find the film over-the-top dramatic. It was perfectly directed, perfected acted. I was completely absorbed in the act that I felt like I was in the building myself, witnessing all the goings-on with my own eyes, and while feeling so, I didn’t think people were over-reacting. I would have reacted THE EXACT SAME way had I been in their shoes. Their small happy times are heartwarming. Their bigger sorrow, heart-wrenching. Their emotions, always palpable. Their fight, understandable. Their stand, firm and unabashed.
Overall, I really liked Begum Jaan. I think the reviews are being a bit too harsh on the film. It deserves a one-time watch at the very least.
PS: Palace or a hut, temple or a brothel – home is home. Period.