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Review

Begum Jaan review: Compelling tale of fiesty women marred by OTT treatment

Release Date: 14 Apr 2017 / Rated: A / 02hr 14min


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Suparna Thombare

Director Srijit Mukherji's loud execution of what looked like a brilliant idea on paper drags this fictional chapter of India's Partition down.

Begum Jaan is almost a frame by frame remake of the Bengali original, Rajkahini (2015), also directed by Srijit Mukherji. Except that this Hindi version is located along the Punjab border instead of in Bengal.

Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) is the madam of a brothel located on the outskirts of a village where she has saved and housed women with a terrible past and given them new lease of life, even if as prostitutes. They are a crass, loud, foul-mouthed bunch, but beneath their hard demeanour there is the basic human need for love.

The first half spends time introducing each of the characters and their back story (briefly), even as India's freedom and Partition unfold in the background.

British diplomat Sir Cyril Radcliffe draws the Radcliffe Line to mark the border between India and Pakistan, which runs right through the kotha (brothel). Government officials — Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor — come knocking on Begum Jaan's door, and slap her with an eviction notice. But Begum Jaan is in no mood to let the India-Pakistan partition divide her home and snatch her life and business away. Her brothel is under the patronage of the local king (Naseeruddin Shah) after all.

This leads us into the second half, which depicts the fight of the fiesty women to save their brothel from being brought down, as the government officials resort to some nefarious ways to get the prostitutes evicted. The leader of the pack is Begum Jaan, who would rather die like a queen in her own palace than live like a beggar. 

Mukherji uses the brothel as a metaphor for India itself. Much like the country, the brothel is diverse, with each of the women belonging to different religions and castes and hailing from different states. While they have their personal differences, they are a close-knit family, until Partition threatens to destroy their unity. The fiesty bunch fights for the lost cause of retaining its home against the powers that don't really care about the ramifications of drawing random lines on a map and causing bloodshed. Begum Jaan represents all those who chose to stand up and fight for their rights during those tumultuous times. 

Vidya embodies her character perfectly, but this is her most over-the-top performance. Even with her brilliance, she cannot undo how Begum Jaan is written and executed. Kausar Munir has written some whistle-worthy dialogues for her, but they come so thick and fast that they lose their charm. If only Munir had toned it down a notch! Why doesn't Begum Jaan ever speak normally? Why did every line of hers have to be this massive over-the-top dialogue in high volume? Yes, she is a fiesty woman, but that isn't reason enough to fall in love with or root for a character.

You feel a lot more for the parts of Amma (Ila Arun) and Rubina (Gauahar Khan), who come across as more real. Khan's turn as Begum Jaan loyalist Rubina, who is in love with Surjeet (Pitobash Tripathy), is the best supporting act in this ensemble cast. Khan shines in a scene where, overwhelmed with emotion, she explains to Surjeet that her soul and not her body is the real her. You want to see more of her as she adds the necessary poise that is missing in most of the other characters.

The rest of the supporting cast, including Vidyarthi, Kapoor, Pallavi Sharda, Chunky Pandey and Vivek Mushran, portray the parts that are handed out to them with earnestness. 

The music by Anu Malik is beautiful, and songs like 'Prem Me Tohre' and 'O Re Kaharo' are major highlights of the film. Khayyam's tragic yet hopeful 'Woh Subah' is used effectively at the end of the film.

Mukherji had a brilliant script in hand, but he needed to dial down the melodrama and volumes of his lead characters. Some of the scenes are so loud that your head hurts. Constant screaming and shouting isn't really a great tool, Mr Mukherji. He could have corrected these mistakes that he made in Rajkahini, but, unfortunately, he doesn't. 

A few quieter moments, some subtle dialogues and a certain thehrav (poise) in the screenplay could have created a better graph for the characters and the story, leading up to an explosive climax. A few silences go a long way in making an impact. Begum Jaan is a great example of why a constant fifth gear isn't necessary to drive home a point.

We have seen poignant tales based on the lives of prostitutes in the past, like Mandi (1983) and Mirch Masala (1987). This one is more a Jhansi Ki Rani version of these films. Too loud and melodramatic, in Begum Jaan, Mukherjee misses out on the chance of telling a poignant and compelling Partition story of the guts and gumption of women who live on the fringes of society. And that's thanks to the over-the-top screenplay and dialogues.

You should watch this film if you want to lament about what could have been.

Reviewed by Suparna Thombare