Partition and Prostitution are two plot devices that can ensure a hard hitting cinematic experience if handled with restraint, and end up making a mockery of human tragedy and resilience, if handled without finesse. Therefore, when the promos of Begum Jaan showed up, one ended up being intrigued. A tale set during the partition involving women of the night promised to be a tantalizing premise. And when it is a massive cast headed by Vidya Balan in a never before avatar, one does walk into the theatre with high expectations. So does Begum possess enough Jaan to hook the viewers?
The year is 1947, the winds of freedom blowing across the country are tempered by the looming clouds of partition, and the horrors it promises to bring forth. But in the house of Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan), it is business as usual, for she believes that a change in rule of the country won’t make any difference to her or the women under her stern gaze. But when the Radcliffe line is set to pass right through the heart of Begum’s haveli, the ladies of the house will have to stick together to fight the powers that be representing the interests of India (Ashish Vidyarthi, Rajesh Sharma), and Pakistan (Rajit Kapur), while putting their hopes in the hands of the kindly schoolmaster (Vivek Mushran) and the local king (Naseeruddin Shah). Can Begum Jaan and her girls survive the horrors of partition? Will they be able to stand their ground against forces far stronger than them?
The opening scene of Begum Jaan illustrates that the director, Srijit Mukherji, isn’t one for subtleties, with references to AFSPA, the 2012 Delhi Gangrape etc thrown in, right up to showing the horrors of Partition at their most graphic. But the trouble is, it seems like almost every on-screen proceeding is only meant to shock, and nothing more, a most superficial cinematic experience. It is this relentless pursuit of shock value that takes the movie down, which is a pity, because what’s been missed here is an opportunity to look at the female dynamic in a less than favourable milieu. Add to that the lack of character development, the uneven pacing of the movie, and the rather odd placement of songs and what we have is an absolutely agonizing experience.
Vidya Balan’s portrayal of Begum Jaan will remind one of Amitabh Bachchan’s portrayal of Vijay Chauhan from Agneepath. There is a menace intermingled perfectly with charisma, but there’s only so much an actor, even one of Balan’s calibre can bring to the table in the light of an extremely underwritten role. The same applies to Pallavi Sharda who is a revelation as the spirited, yet naive, Gulaabo, and it’s a pity that a fantastic performance like hers is wasted on such an insipid script. It is a travesty to watch performers of the calibre of Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah and Gauhar Khan wasted in inconsequential roles here. But one must make note of Chunky Pandey who takes a break from joking around, to portray the feral Kabir with absolute aplomb.
Overall, Begum Jaan is an egregious piece of cinema that attempts to use titillation and shock value in the absence of a good script, and passes off the same as women empowerment.