Cast: Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Vivek Mushram, Chunky Pandey, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Priyanka Setia, Misthi, Gracy Goswami, Pitobash Tripathy, Sumit Nijhawan, Rajesh Sharma
Director: Srijit Mukherji
It’s night time in Connaught Place, Delhi. Some drunk louts are thrashing a boy and trying to molest a girl. She struggles and manages to make a dash, and upon finding a destitute woman, makes her her human shield. The old woman stares silently at the boys who are telling her to leave, to let them have their way with the girl. And then, as the national flag sways in the background, she starts to strip. First the top comes off, and then the bottom. Something stirs inside us. But soon our attention is on the boys. They are doubling up with severe convulsions. One is also vomiting. And again something stirs inside. This time you wonder, what is the director trying to say? Why the puking? There’s something utterly revolting about this scene, which is also, at the same time, quite powerful. It uses us, violates us to make its point. And it does so in the tackiest way possible.
This scene in 2016, and another, similar one at the time of India’s Partition, bookend Srijit Mukherji’s film. In between seethes the story of a brothel at the time of Partition, and a message from the director which gets lost in all the kinetic nonsense that surrounds it. The preface to the film’s story is narrated by Amitabh Bachchan. His voice, booming with sarcasm and anger about a historic wrong, tells us how Mountbatten appointed Cyril Radcliffe, who, in four weeks, drew a line splitting one country into two, rendering 80 lakh people homeless. We meet the two men, now from two different countries, assigned to draw the line on the ground — Illias (Rajit Kapoor) and Shrivastav (Ashish Vidyarthi). Riots are taking place, resentment is building among both the communities and these two men, who were once friends, struggle with this new reality. Their task seems fairly simple, except for one glitch: Sir Radcliffe’s line cuts through a kotha run by Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). It has to be vacated. But Begum Jaan, sprawled on a cot in the verandah of her haveli, smoking a hooka and getting her back massaged, is no pushover.
A scene is plonked right there, to tell us that the haughty, practical, harsh, no-nonsense madam of the brothel, won’t leave without a fight. Speaking in a voice that is at once tired, gravely and dripping with biting, impatient wisdom, she proceeds to take charge of the film. Under her stern care is Amma (Ila Arun), Surjeet (Pitobash Tripathy), Saleem (Sumit Nijhawan) who guards the brothel with two dogs, and an assortment of women, including Rubina (Gauahar Khan). There’s also little Ladli (Gracy Goswami) and Masterji (Vivek Musram) who visits occasionally. Each woman at the brothel has an interesting look, but they are barely defined. They do carry tags, though. One was rescued from rioters, one was bought for X amount. Another, who has just arrived, is in shock. Then there’s one in love with Masterji, while another loves Surjeet (who is really Naseeruddin Shah’s Tungrus, from Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, reimagined). All have powerful appearances, and they often come together for what looks like a Vogue centrespread — an affected photo shoot of sexy, pretty women in Indian boho chic.
Glazed, but shallow. Nothing much happens at the brothel. We don’t see much business being conducted, either at the gate or on beds. Occasionally there’s a customer. But mostly the women, forever hyper, are screaming at each other. Begum Jaan seems to have seen it all. Nothing really excites her. Not even when, after listening to Nehru’s Tryst With Destiny speech, Masterji translates it for the brothel in one word, “Azaadi!” For tawaifs, she says, all days are the same. And at some point poses the profound question: Will a tawaif be happy when no customer comes, or when someone comes? It’s interesting, important. But really, the issue is the barb wire that’s going to run through her house. And yet, when Messrs Shrivastav and Illias come to give her an ultimatum, Begum Jaan simply draws on her hooka and spouts heavy-duty dissing, embellished with some deep philosophy about women and their monthly chumming cycles.
It’s a cheap trick, and while it doesn’t work on them, it’s sure to elicit a few seetis in cinema halls. Her patron Raja Sahib’s (Naseeruddin Shah) presence and help is requested. He arrives with gifts, promises a solution and, in return, makes a heart-wrenching demand. Eventually, of course, there’s nothing he can do, because the world is changing. So while Shrivastav engages Kabir (Chunky Pandey) to evict Begum Jaan and her entourage, Begum Jaan starts gearing up for war. Kabir. This one character, imagined with scary clarity and acted and directed with devilish relish, is pure evil. He profits from mayhem, death, and then wades into the ruins with a smile, to enjoy a bit more. After some horrific events one of the worst gun battles ever shot in the history of cinema ensues. And then, worse follows. Imagine a climax where a character, we’ve sort of grown to have some interest in, turn into a human torch, and staggers about on the screen, burning, flailing. My single response was irritated exhaustion.
Vidya Balan’s performance as Begum Jaan is powerful, but it’s also one that, in a slightly better film, would have been annoying. But this film is so scattered — in its camerawork, script, characterisation — and suffering from an existential crisis that she’s the only one who holds it together. Vidya’s Begum is forever channelling her anger at aadmi jaat in her one-liners, while puffing her hooka in a superior, self-important recline. Srijit Mukherji, who has written the film’s screenplay and dialogue, and directed it, didn’t think it important to weave something substantial about Begum Jaan. There is a vague back story, but nothing that gives us any real insight. That sometimes makes it difficult to connect with her arrogance and anger, rendering her comical at times.
So many gimmicky things take place in Begum Jaan, as if the director, instead of shouting “lights, camera, action,” shouted “pose, pout, overact”. Not just to the actors, but also the cameraman, musicians, et all. The film is often so tacky and the dialogue baazi so overwrought and amplified, that I thought it’s perhaps a diversion, to take our attention away from the fact that the film has very little to offer by way of story, plot. Though inspired by the short stories of Sadaat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai, especially Toba Tek Singh, the screenplay is fabricated and hammy. But it does have some beautifully shot scenes, like the Holi song, and these lend it a surreal quality and these images stay with you. like vignets of a confusing dream that makes no sense.