Thirty-four years ago, Ila Arun made her acting debut in a film about a brothel. Mandi, directed by Shyam Benegal, told the story of the tough-talking, resilient, manipulative madam Rukmini Bai and her girls. Their loves and lives, their relationships and disappointments, their strength and bonding created a memorable film that had at its core, a dark humour. Through these women, Benegal offered a scathing social critique and some hard truths.
Begum Jaan revisits that world. Except here the year is 1947. The tough talking madam is Begum Jaan. Ila Arun is now the brothel’s loving elder figure. And there is absolutely no room for humour.
The back-drop is Partition. The sub-continent has been newly divided and Begum Jaan’s brothel is located on both sides of the Radcliffe line – that is one half falls in India and the other in Pakistan. When authorities from both countries try to throw them out, the Begum and her girls refuse to move.
The Kotha, they argue, is the only place without division – there is no religion here or class. Here, there is only dhanda. Once the lights go off, all men are equal.
It’s a strong idea that has already worked in Bengali. Writer and director Srijit Mukherji, who also made Rajkahini, retells his own story with a few changes, including a clumsy present day sequence, which underlines how little has changed for women in this country.
Begum Jaan is better than Rajkahini mainly because Vidya Balan propels it. Begum Jaan is a fascinating character – at once ferocious and crass but also affectionate and vulnerable. Vidya revels in her strength and stubbornness. She’s loud but also moving. Though I didn’t really get why a woman this sturdy wouldn’t just move and set up shop somewhere else. After all, sex never goes into recession.
But this film is plagued by bigger problems – starting with the decibel level. This story is so inherently dramatic and soaked in symbolism that it needed a light hand. But Srijit doesn’t create one subtle moment in the 134-minute running time. Everything is underlined. Characters shriek, scream and snarl. The writing is over-wrought and bombastic. You can almost see the film straining to be important with a capital I. It’s dedicated to two iconic writers from the sub-continent Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. And it ends with Sahir’s haunting song – woh subah kabhi toh aayegi.
The burden buries the supporting characters, who are under-written to begin with. The ensemble cast includes fine actors like Rajit Kapur and Ashish Vidhyarthi but they don’t make much of an impression. These two also struggle with awkward framing – Srijit shoots them in tight close-up with only half their face onscreen – a reflection perhaps of the divided country. It doesn’t work.
The other women in the brothel are largely forgettable - only Gauahar Khan gets a chance to shine.Pitobash Tripathy as her lover is also good. Chunky Pandey, wearing kajal and ruined teeth, tries hard to be a fearsome contract killer but all of it feels stagey and purposefully sensational.
This is pulp fiction, not in a good way. Begum Jaan is over-cooked and just flat-out tiring.