A brothel-keeper defending her turf or her honour is
The fictional tale of a brothel that falls smack in
the centre of the Radcliffe Line, with one half in Pakistan and the other in
India, could also make a great story.
But it’s the premise, Begum Jaan’s stubborn stand of
not moving out and resettling elsewhere, of turning it into a prestige issue,
of even giving it a feminist flavour that’s difficult to connect with. Given
the catastrophic partition of 1947, Begum Jaan’s fight against officials from
Pakistan and India seems hysterically pointless, with Vidya Balan spitting out azaadi as a potent bad word.
Writer-director Srijit Mukherji scores worthy points
about women who don’t have the freedom to even curse without abusing a sister
or a mother. But he overcooks it inscreechy decibels with more than one
reference to monthly periods and curses against men.
With a dizzy number of sub-plots, contradictions
abound. Begum Jaan’s house is where Hindu-Muslim-Sikh or caste divides melt
away on the whore’s bed, a point that’s hammered endlessly. But criminal Kabir,
played well by Chunky Panday, whose men will kill, rape or maim, is equallyoblivious
to religious differences as long as the price is right. So what makes only Begum
Jaan so righteous?
Mukherji also goes overboard in portraying Begum Jaan
as a fiery feminist. In an endless series of dull storytelling by an old Ila
Arun who narrates the valour of Jhansi Ki Rani, Meera and Razia Sultana, Begum
Jaan is laughably shown as an avatar of all of them.
The bonding and catfights among the girls, sparks of
love that have a flash of lesbianism, generations under one roof and doomed
romances, are all packed in with uniform rawness and sledgehammer subtlety.
But worthy of special mention are ‘Prem mein
tohre’ and a Holi number composed by Anu Malik.
Despite dozens of characters, it’s practically a solo
act by Vidya Balan who once again proves that she’s a compelling performer. In
an interaction with Raja, their chief patron played by Naseeruddin Shah, she’s
particularly impressive, combining craftiness with required servility.
But ultimately the question to ask is, what’s the hyper
drama all about?
director Ram Madhvani recently encapsulated the Radcliffe Linein nine
wonderfully evocative minutes in the short film This Bloody Line.
Unfortunately, Srijit Mukherji’s 134-minute drama is
coarse without making the same impact.
For an overloud film that spits fire without drawing
your empathy, Begum Jaan gets a 2.5* rating.
Journalist & Author