Begum Jaan Review: A Wholeheartedly Awful Film, Film Companion

Director: Srijit Mukherji

Cast: Vidya Balan, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Chunky Pandey, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda

Begum Jaan is a wholeheartedly awful film. It commits to absolute carnage – of sensibilities, craft, metaphors, motifs, genres, periods, performances, careers and overall artistry. It’s so committed that it can be in a long-distance relationship with incompetence. It’s so focused on assaulting us that it feels like the Radcliffe line is being clawed through our bodies by Karan Malhotra (Brothers, Agneepath) and a bunch of vengeful background musicians. It’s so clinically dead, messy and disjointed that the butchers from Angamaly Diaries would have an identity crisis.

Not for a second does this film stop trying to make a fool of itself. It seems to be designed by the kind of mind that is so confident about its ‘Bollywood accessibility’ that Tony D’Souza and Milan Luthria would be offended. I’ve not seen any of his Bengali films, but I’m given to understand that director Srijit Mukherji is sort of a big deal. Winning six or seven National Awards is no mean feat. Yet, his first Hindi film, which is a remake – taste-defying interpretation, actually – of his Bengali film Rajkahini, looks like Gulaab Gang and Humari Adhuri Kahaani (because Vidya Balan doesn’t learn) conceived a social-media-feminist baby in the now-defunct Balaji Telefilms compound.

I don’t know what it is about Bengali directors who think they must shed their original language in order to adapt to the needs of Hindi-film watchers, but I suspect the producers they choose – or succumb to in most cases – have a lot to do with their drastic embrace of this lowest-common-denominator grammar. To put things into context, the notorious Brothers Bhatt have produced this one. I’d say that explains a lot, but how does one forget how to make a film overnight?

Begum Jaan’s place is more of a multicultural madhouse – full of screechy women that sound like they’ve escaped Arkham Asylums for Failed Actors from every region

Usually, I like to look slightly deeper than the obviously terrible surface and perhaps pinpoint why and how the makers go wrong. There’s more to a rant than easy phrases.

It’s always interesting to know what drives people to be so blinded by the quantity of their work that they expect critics to mistake it for quality. But I can’t find a single moment of Begum Jaan worthy enough to dissect or even accept. Nothing I write will educate me, or the readers, or the film, or its poor viewers over the weekend. It’s a lose-lose-lose-lose situation.

Most of it is based in a sprawling harem in 1947 that is to be destroyed for the new Indo-Pak border to pass through. In charge of this demolition are two stooges – the Indian National Congress’ Harshavardhan (Ashish Vidyarthi) and the Muslim League’s Illias (Rajit Kapoor). These two act like nostalgic old colonial uncles reminiscing about the Partition even before it happens.

They exist as a device to remind us of the history books being rewritten – and that even Indian theatre veterans like to make a quick buck. During some of their mostly robotic conversations, Mukerji frames them absurdly – one half of each face to the corner of a wide frame, making it look like they were censored for not being pretty enough. Sure, we get the Hindu-Muslim parts-form-a-whole symbolism, but surely there’s a way to be less jarring and pretentious about it.

A uni-browed, blue-eyed Begum Jaan (Balan) is the defiant owner of the haveli. She is detestable, and I wanted her to perish within the first fifteen minutes. She sucks up to a King, hates on a commoner, resents her business and celebrates the democracy of a bed. But her place is more of a multicultural madhouse – full of screechy women that sound like they’ve escaped Arkham Asylums for Failed Actors from every region. Viewers who amble out after watching this film will probably look as unhinged and pointlessly deranged.

Towards the end, there’s a laughably choreographed shootout sequence where everyone seems to be firing blanks into the dark, quite literally

There’s a girl who speaks Gujarati in a Rajasthani accent, a girl who speaks Marwari in a Bengali accent, a girl who speaks Bihari Hindi in a South Indian accent, and a girl who doesn’t speak at all too. This girl is Mishti – the young light-eyed actress who still looks traumatized from making her debut with Subhash Ghai’s Kaanchi.

Chunky Pandey also appears as an evil villain entrusted with the job of ‘clearing the path’; the brief to him seems to be “act like you don’t have a toothpick but you really need one”. Towards the end, there’s a laughably choreographed shootout sequence where everyone seems to be firing blanks into the dark, quite literally. I could swear the cinematographer was shot a couple of times, too. They’re all screaming and running and shouting and burning and dying, almost as if they’re being told that a sequel is in the works and they’d have to reprise their roles.

The ladies’ bizarre behavior is clearly the result of a man directing them, and exploiting his own superficial idea of the world’s oldest profession. What else can explain a shot of an old woman stripping against the backdrop of the Indian flag in 2017 to drive away rapists? And its corresponding 1947 scene of a pre-teen girl doing the same to shame a perverse cop into submission? This would’ve been tasteless and inexplicable, if this were actually a film.

Rating:   star

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