Film Review: BEGUM JAAN

Genre Drama
Minutes 135
Director Srijit Mukherji
Movie Rating 2.5/5

Shot entirely in Jharkhand and set during Independence on the western border  (the original Bengali version ‘Rajkahini’  2015, was set on the eastern border), Begum Jaan  opens with scenes of an old lady stoically  rescuing a young women from going the Nirbhaya way.

Begum Jaan  (Vidya Balan) is the madam of a  kotha in a sprawling mansion—in the middle of nowhere—in undivided India. She enjoys the patronage of the local Raja (Naseeruddin Shah) and the constabulary, besides the ‘whites’.  Come Partition time and Sir Cyril Radcliffe is assigned the unenviable task of drawing the border. As the ‘lakshman-rekha’ passes through her haveli, the hookah-puffing Begum, with her profane dialogues, tries every trick in her book to nullify the government’s order.

Begum Jaan is set against the barest of scenes of Partition and its bloody  aftermath. Obviously, that wasn’t the director’s intention.  The film tries to show a foul–mouthed, derring-do begum who has offered shelter, solace and support to the group of eight or so young women— Punjabi, Gujarati, you have them all—all of whom were rescued in different ways and who now owe allegiance to the begum.

Sirjit Mukherji seems to have drawn inspiration from Shyam Benegal’s acclaimed Mandi (1983) besides giving the ‘dividing line’ more thought than Radcliffe did.  Too many characters and their sub-plots—Rubina’s (Gauhar Khan) liaison with Surjeet (Pitobash Tripathy), the in-house help-cum-jester; Gulabo’s (Pallavi Sharda) association with the ingenuous Masterji (Vivek Mushran), apart from  clichés such as ‘Azaadi sirf mardon ke liye hain’.

Mukherji’s attempt to introduce high ranking officials from the Muslim League and from the Congress (Ilyaas-Rajit Kapur and Harshvardan-Ashish Vidyarthi) who, apart from serving Begum the eviction notice, examine the pros and cons of Partition works well, but only to an extent.  There’s the white-saree clad Amma (Ila Arun) who offers allegories—Razia Sultana, Jhansi ki Rani—to the young Laadli (Gracy Goswami). And then there is Rajaji (Naseeruddin in an extended special appearance) who extracts his pound of flesh (pun intended) from the kotha every time he deigns a favour to Begum. Chunkey Pandey as Kabir, who with his hoodlums is brought in to forcibly vacate the haveli is a revelation.

The final 20 or so minutes have shades of Ma Baker and her ‘Jism’ Gang. Srijit Mukherji’s Bollywood debut tries hard to replicate the success of his original Bengali hit.   Vidya Balan has proved her versatility in recent years and she does it again.

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