BEGUM JAAN STORY: On the eve of Independence, the chairman of the Border Commission, Sir Cyril Radcliffe decides to divide India and Pakistan into equitable halves. What the administration doesn’t account for is the line running through the middle of Begum Jaan’s(Vidya Balan) brothel situated plonk on the border; with one half falling in India and the other in Pakistan.
BEGUM JAAN REVIEW: It’s a good period and story to revisit because even 70-years after Partition, anything around it still piques interest. Then again, here the narrative deals less with the horror of the divide and serves more as an ode to the spiritedness of Begum; widowed in her childhood and sold to a brothel. Also, Mukherji is revisiting his Bengali film Rajkahini(2015).
Coming back to our protagonist – kings, administrators and commoners are hooked onto the pleasures provided by her girls, so Begum with her guile manages to rule. Till, Radcliffe draws the Lakshman-Rekha.
Vidya invests fully in Begum and her dialogue-baazi (a lot of which is raunchy) will get ceetis. However, the writer-director’s interest level in everything else, falters. A sense of deja-vu pervades as one watches a prostitute staring sightlessly at the celling when “entertaining” a customer; or when sex-workers get sentimental over a child, “because all of them are mothers first and whores later.” Surely these women needed to be fleshed out with more finesse.
Begum’s spunk is infectious though. She resembles a Bengal tigress whether she is defending her body or boundaries. However, trying to retell her virtues through various historical avatars in animation, is far too indulgent. Also conversations between officials of the INC and Muslim League, or for that matter between other cardboard cutouts, is superficial. The cinematographer’s effort to capture the Indo-Pak divide with close-ups in half frames, seems amiss.
The Holi number is peppy with striking visuals. Otherwise having the 11 women in one frame becomes nothing but a screech-fest. Having Vidya in a film is an asset though. She is an audacious actor, who merits an extra half star for her ability to shoulder a film.