Begum Jaan is dedicated to Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto; quite obviously for being set during the Partition (Chugtai stayed on in India, Manto went to Pakistan) and also, perhaps, in its ostensible radical ambition. However, it is hardly able to display the duo’s wisdom, insight and profundity in dealing with what could have been a compelling story. A brothel standing in the middle of the Radcliffe line drawn to divide India and Pakistan is a topic bristling with possibilities that unfortunately gets lost in a sea of well-worn clichés, crushing noise and slipshod, tawdry telling.
Each scene feels consciously staged than unprompted and the flow from one sequence to the next is perennially jerky leading to way too much chaos on- screen.
The opening sequence hints at what is to follow: a deliberate coarseness in offering something revolutionary in the name of gender. If what we get to see is a nod to the protest against the army by the Manipur mothers in 2004, well then it has none of the poignant fury of the act. It makes you cringe rather than empathise. Much of the crudity in dialogue and scenes seems deliberately aimed at sensationalising, eliciting wolf-whistles from the male audience rather than being sensitive to women. For example, the reference to a man as rooster with three legs. Or the dialogue that refers to menstruation—“Humein maheena gin-na aata hai, har baar saala laal karke jaata hai”. The same applies to the cat-fights and the hint at lesbianism.
There is no room for compassion in Begum Jaan’s sledgehammer approach. Nothing cuts deep enough—neither the talk of the mix of religion, caste, nationality in the brothel nor how women can’t be free even if the country gets independence. A film like this can only work if the audience can root for the characters but Begum Jaan leaves you perversely unmoved and uncaring.
Then there’s the pat symbolism—the trite binary in putting the officers from Indian National Congress and Muslim League in two corners of the frame (Partition? yes we get it) as they sanctimoniously talk about their women being disrobed and raped. They even sit at the two extremes of the sofa with some sort of an imaginary line running in the middle. Of course, the brothel itself has girls representing every region—from Gujarat to Punjab to Rajasthan and the very contrived street scenes and crowds that have the token Muslim, Hindu and Sikh presence. There is a recurrent evocation of strong women from history/mythology (with Vidya Balan donning them all) which is nothing but a needless stretch, specially when the film seems to wallow in the violence unleashed against women.
Begum Jaan is shrill, shouts at the viewer in every frame. No wonder even perfectly fine actors end up overdoing things. In the lead role, with her unibrow, deliberate weight and gait, Vidya Balan ends up speechifying more than acting. Most of the films these days come alive with the ensemble than the leads. Begum Jaan, however, is let down badly by the side show, the girls coming across as extremely inept and ineffectual, their lingo and accents is particularly laboured, the body language too designed and deliberate. But why blame them alone when the whole film itself is so patently manufactured?