Begum Jaan—Vidya Balan plays a caricature not a character

By Rutwij Nakhwa

Like the handful of women in the huge castle-like kotha, the story is lost, trampled upon by unnecessary larger than life tropes.

Through the course of the film Begum Jaan is compared to a number of icons from Indian history and myth: Rani Laxmibai, Mirabai, Razia Sultan and Rani Padmavati. The problem is we hardly look at any of them as real women but merely as goddesses and archetypal caricatures. Balan’s character strives hard to be the best of them but ends up forgetting to be a real person. 

‘Begum Jaan’ takes you back to the Partition of India, and in particular to a grand brothel that ends up being smack in the middle of the Radcliffe line. The official order is to vacate and demolish, making way for a border check-post. But Begum who doesn’t pay her taxes and refuses to acknowledge any authority but that of local Raja (Naseeruddin Shah) whose patronage she enjoys, decides that she will not comply. 

The film (and the filmmaker) and most of characters in it seem to be under a strange subsuming delusion, what they think and claim to be is far from what they are in reality. Begum is drawn out to be a heroic maternal figure, custodian of all the girls she has “taken-in”, but her actions are simply that of a shrewd and ruthless businesswoman. At one-point she even fondly reminisces about how buying a pair of these girls almost emptied her coffers. The love that she ostensibly has for the girls is subject to them ensuring a smooth run to her business. Balan, being the actor she is, tries her best but even she cannot resurrect this film, especially with her hideously artificial blue-grey contact lenses. 

Chunky Pandey plays Kabir, a mercenary who forces the women out of their kotha

‘Begum Jaan’ does have a few good movements. There is the typical but heartfelt love between the pimp (and comic relief), Surjeet and one of the girls, Rubina, both Pitobash and Gauhar Khan put in strong performances. Better still is Chunky Pandy, almost unrecognisable outside his clown avatar. He is a delight to watch as Kabir, a maniacal mercenary tasked with forcing the women out of the Kotha. But the good parts are easily washed over by plenty bad ones. Every other performance is exaggerated, everyone shouts more than they speak, and Ila Arun’s coarse drawl is unbearable after a point. Almost all character arcs are unrealistic and the force-fed back stories just don’t stick.

The camera work is at best passable, almost everyone who has seen the film has an issue with the half-face gimmick that has been employed to illustrate the partition, through interactions between the official representatives of India and Pakistan. The background score and songs are as cliched as it gets.

At the film’s core there is a powerful story about a woman, oppressed by men throughout her life, now having turned the tables, refusing to bow down to any more masculine diktats. But like the handful of women in the huge castle-like kotha, the story is lost trampled upon by unnecessary larger than life tropes. There is incessant babble about the politics and morality of the partition and feminism injected in heavy doses into the superficial dialogues, unfortunately none of it reflects in the film itself. Perhaps, a finer, more grounded director’s eye could have done this tale some justice.

The film is at its worst at the beginning and end. It starts with a contrived fictionalisation of the Nirbhaya incident and finishes there too, but not before the director has forced you to watch a  montage of what he feels are the best moments of his film, all over again. For me once was more than enough. These fifteen odd minutes are completely missable. 

As for the rest of the film, it is quite watchable, provided you go in with your expectations lowered by historic proportions. 

Rating – ★★☆☆☆

(Rutwij Nakhwa recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in Mass Media (Journalism) from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and is a Features writer for FilmIndia Global)

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