Vidya Balan’s latest release, Begum Jaan, tries giving history a touch of alternative reality. The thrust is on creating a fantasy portrait of a tumultuous past, inviting viewers to imagine as fact a turn of events that never actually occurred.
The fantasy pertains to imagining a brothel that comes in the way when the Partition line between India and Pakistan is being drawn. The women in the house, led by its madam Begum Jaan, refuse to budge despite being served an eviction notice. Things get ugly as authorities on both sides try every trick to move them out. The women take up guns to protect their turf.
No such incident ever occurred along the Indo-Pak border when it was being created, of course, and the film’s bid to visualise such a set-up is merely meant to create cinematic drama.
The idea is somewhat like what Hollywood maverick Quentin Tarantino did when he imagined a group of Allied soldiers gunning down Hitler at a movie premiere in Inglourious Basterds. The 2009 hit popularised the concept of alternative history in cinema.
The weaving of fiction into a historical canvas is not yet all that common in Bollywood, and could have made Begum Jaan a unique experiment in the Hindi entertainment space. It does not, because new-age Bengali filmmaker Srijit Mukherjee — who makes his Bollywood directorial debut with the film — merely ends up twisting history for the sake of cinematic excesses.
The thing you take back from Begum Jaan is how loud the film’s treatment is. Perhaps the makers were trying to render impact to the film’s Partition-era backdrop and characters. Perhaps, Begum Jaan, with its frequent fits of over-the-top melodrama, was trying to convey how Partition was a raving insanity for all who encountered it.
The film’s narrative, however, hardly tries to understand Partition as the most important incident in the political history of the subcontinent. Begum Jaan is all sound, no fury. The loud treatment drowns the one quality such a film demands.
|Vidya Balan manages a fine balance of emotions despite being given a role that could easily slip into hamming mode.|
Begum Jaan falls short of being the cutting-edge thriller its trailers promised despite the polished tech-specs. As the story moves, substantial footage is allotted to the battle the women wage against powerful men of both the newly-formed nations who want to uproot them. It is meant to bring in its wake an obvious feminist statement.
The effort, however, is lost amid plastic execution. After a while, the script begins to seem like a mere excuse to put guns in the hands of these hard-cussing women who hawk sex for a living, thereby cashing in on a bad girl aura for box-office largesse alone. These reasons reduce the film to mediocre fare, far from what would let Vidya Balan regain the purple patch of Ishqiya, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani.
Most of the premise in Begum Jaan is meant to let the cast play to the gallery. Vidya manages a fine balance of emotions despite being given a role that could easily slip into hamming mode, but that is not enough.
Begum Jaan tries being an unusual film but fails, simply because it buckles under clichés and contrived plot twists. That is the tragic bit about this film billed as a tragedy.