‘Begum Jaan’ stars Vidya Balan in the title role, along with an ensemble cast of Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah, Gauhar Khan, Pallivai Sharda, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Vivek Mushran and Chunky Pandey among others. It has been directed by Srijit Mukherji and is and adaption of his own Bengali directorial ‘Rajkahini’ (2015).
As such, there are lot of scenes that are same as those in ‘Rajkahini’. Some scenes also appear to have been reused. The settings have been changed though. While ‘Rajkahini’ was set on India’s border with erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, on the eastern side, ‘Begum Jaan’ is shifted to Punjab bordering Pakistan. The film is also shorter in duration that the original version.
‘Begum Jaan’ opens in present day to an unpleasant incident at the heart of New Delhi, signifying that very little has changed in how women are perceived in our society, since Independence. The scene shifts 70 as Amitabh Bachchan’s impassioned voice-over informs that British officer Cyril Radcliffe has been entrusted to chart out the line to separate India and Pakistan in just four weeks. But the proposed Radcliffe Line runs right through the middle of a brothel run by the aggressive, sharp-tongued, expletive-mouthing Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). Begum Jaan, who landed up in the brothel after being widowed in childhood, is an astute, daredevil, authoritarian woman, but has a soft heart inside her tough appearance. The women in her brothel belong to different communities and caste, to whom she has given shelter, of course in exchange of being a prostitute. But all of them respect Begum Jaan and are loyal to her. Begum Jaan and her women enjoy the patronage of the local king - Rajaji (Naseeruddin Shah), who, along with several others, frequent the brothel seeking pleasure. Rajaji’s support is the reason behind Begum Jaan’s audacious attitude and no one, not even authorities, dare to mess with her. A kind school teacher (Vivek Mushran), who has a soft-corner for Begum Jaan, and visits her brothel often.
The brothel women, unaware of the looming trouble, celebrate the news of Independence, but their merriment is short-lived as they receive a notice to vacate the brothel to facilitate the creation of the fencing to divide India and Pakistan. Childhood friends Hariprasad (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilias (Rajit Kapoor), representing their respective parties – Indian National Congress and Muslim League, ask Begum Jaan to leave the place and relocate somewhere else, but she blatantly refuses. Despite their repeated attempts, she doesn’t budge and dares them to evict her from her home. She witnesses the exodus and is aware that her business will dry up, but she is stubborn. When Rajaji turns his back and the school master also advises her to comply with the orders, Begum Jaan and her girls train themselves to rebel against the administration to save their home. Meanwhile, Hariprasad and Ilias decide to get rid of Begum Jaan by unofficial means and hire a wicked local Kabir who employs cunning tricks and violent ways to chase away the occupants of the brothel, but they put up a strong fight.
‘Begum Jaan’ is set in the backdrop of the tumultuous times of partition that triggered a horrific pogrom, the scars of which haven’t healed till date. But the film doesn’t deal with the atrocities suffered due to the partition and focusses on the fight against the odds by a marginalized group to claim their rights - the prostitutes saving their brothel in this case. There is also an underlying sense of the fight against patriarchy, as established by the opening scene. The movie has some hard-hitting and intense dialogues; shocking, powerful and striking scenes and sequences that gives goosebumps and causes a lump in the throat.
What mars the film is its incoherent screenplay and unnecessary side-tracks that dilutes its impact. It is also overtly melodramatic, especially towards the end. Also, with so many characters, very little is revealed about the background of most of the characters, and as such, the audience fail to feel for them.
Most of all, it is the brilliant performance of the talented cast that makes ‘Begum Jaan’ work. Vidya Balan once again gives a powerful performance despite an inconsistent script. She wears Begum Jaan’s character and is the life and soul of the movie. The supporting cast of Gauhar Khan, Pitobash, Pallavi Sharda, Vivek Mushran and others hold their own and get noticed with their impressive performances. Rajit Kapoor and Ashish Vidyarthi are convincing, while Naseeruddin Shah leaves an impact with his extended cameo. But the most interesting casting ought to be that of Chunky Pandey as the shrewd contract-killer. He has undergone a massive transformation and is almost unrecognizable. It was refreshing to watch him in a different avatar.
‘Begum Jaan’ is a well-intentioned movie, but has been cluttered with too many things. But the actors retain the steam with their attention-grabbing acts, and it certainly deserves a watch.