Film: Begum Jaan
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Vidya Balan, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Gauhar Khan, Pallavi Sharda
Begum Jaan is the remake of Srijit Mukherji’s Rajkahini that reflects the Bengali film’s original locations of Debiganj and Haldibari as the Lahore-Amritsar area at the height of Partition. Vidya Balan, as Begum Jaan, runs a tight ship, and is a boss-mother figure to all the women working under her and a pitiless tyrant to the men who dare cross her path. The influence is clearly Shyam Benegal’s Mandi. It so happens that around her prime property, there are no bloodbaths or other forms of violence even as we keep hearing about these things from other characters outside of Begum’s house.
These portions are when Mukherji does something experimental with his craft. Two government officers meet — one Muslim and one Hindu (Rajit Kapoor as Ilias and Ashish Vidhyarthi as Harshvardhan), and we notice that they’ve been family friends for long. There is a change in tone the first time they meet post the gruesome events and the atmosphere is palpable. Mukherji experiments with the way he frames or blocks his shots. He makes Ilias and Harshavardhan sit on rocks quite a distance apart and goes for a wide shot with the new partitioned land in front of them.
Or when they speak about it, we see half their faces in one corner of the frame and the others’ half from the other corner. An unfortunate, poorly planned event has made the friends half the men they were. There is even a shot of them leaving Begum Jaan’s fort with their notice stuck to either side of the doors as the camera pans into the residents, still reeling from righteous anger. The situation in Begum Jaan’s fort is always just short of an explosion.
Years and decades of subjugation, and dominance by men, have made sure that reason will never enter the fort of Begum Jaan, and Begum will go to any lengths to safeguard her people from men. She treats the fort like a diplomatic area that no country or authority can touch. In such a situation, the only question is, who pulls the trigger first. There is nothing even Vidya Balan can do to make things interesting here when that happens. And we never get to know enough about the characters to identify with their sense of loss and longing. Begum Jaan turns out to be as uneven as Cyril Radcliffe’s drawing of India and Pakistan’s borders.