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Begum Jaan.....A rebel without a cause!

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MUMBAI: The last memorable film on a brothel and prostitutes was Shyam Benegal’s Mandi. The theme was that wherever there are people, a brothel is bound to spring up and, otherwise, wherever a brothel comes up, a town is bound to come up.

Begum Jaan is the remake of the Bengali language film, Rajkahini (2015). The closeness one can find between the two is about the women in the oldest profession fighting for survival.

Actually, if one were to make a comparison as the women in the brothel, led by its
founder, the character of Vidya Balan, resolve to stand their ground and fight out the battle of survival, it is with Ketan Mehta’s all-time classic, Mirch Masala, though it was not about prostitution. It was about saving a woman’s honour and, hence, the cause was justified.

Begum Jaan is based around time when India was partitioned -- India and Pakistan.

Vidya Balan, a child widow, is disowned by her in-laws. Going through exploitation and hurdles, she ends up in prostitution. Being a strong-willed woman, she would do even that on her own terms. Her clientele includes big shots, influential people, even a king and some white men and officers who seek favours gratis. Ergo, Vidya wields great influence.

Vidya has 11 women in her brothel, one old lady, Ila Arun, and a pre-teen girl, Gracy Goswami, a love child of one of her ‘girls’, Gauhar Khan. Vidya’s vast brothel, spread across a few acres, serves as a sort of shelter for women in distress who, eventually, join her trade. Socially ostracised, the brothels made their place away from towns.

The girls live in bonhomie, they come from across India: Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab et al (how women from all over reached there in those days of great distances and limited transportation facilities is not answered). Maybe the idea is to make the brothel a representative of India: Unity in diversity!

The place also has a Pathan sentry, played by Sumit Nijhawan, accompanied by his two ferocious looking dogs, all three totally loyal to Vidya.

The going is good for Vidya and her girls till the powers that be decide to divide India into two countries, India and Pakistan. Here the film takes inspiration from various Partition stories written by the legendary writers, the likes of Saadat Hasan Manto. These are stories of unsuspecting bystanders, the kinds who unwittingly fell prey to the partition lines drawn by -- Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man in charge of The Border Commission, to divide the country.

This is when the trouble starts for Vidya and her brothel. Her brothel falls right on the dividing line and to create the border and to separate two nations, it has to make way. Its very existence is in danger.

The two men deputed to oversee the implementing of the division and build a barbed wire fence are the characters of Ashish Vidyarthi, a Hindu, representing India, and Rajit Kapoor, a Muslim, on behalf of the newly-formed Pakistan. That both are childhood friends but on different sides, is meant to add to the anxiety. Sadly, after creating a sort of ‘partition’ between both of them, their equation has been put on the back burner, except to show at the end that, both remain humane with their feelings intact to a wrongdoing.

Both, Ashish and Rajit are at their wits’ end trying to make Vidya vacate her brothel when they approach a goon, played by Chunky Pandey and, as it is known in today’s world, give Vidya’s supari (a contract to get her out by any means).

The film, which had started deteriorating gradually before interval, drops to its lowest hereafter. The very idea of introducing Chunky, his getup, his manners, take the film down. Towards the end, it swings between morbid and macabre.

The scripting tries to incorporate too many angles. The main ones being a brothel at peril, two friends, now belonging to opposite sides, trying to fulfil a task entrusted to them, and the disaster they create when they involve a third party. But, the writers cram in many other side stories; that of a young girl child born at the brothel, a lusty teacher and his treachery, a love story between a pimp and a prostitute and so on.

The idea may be to show the human side of those concerned, good or bad. The narration strays too often with the extra tracks and the pace drops.

The direction is not really up to the mark. The idea of creating little India in the brothel is bad; as the women in the brothel converse in their native languages, be is Punjabi or Gujarati, none gets the language right, they make a mess of it. That after the film propagates all through that prostitution has no religion or regional identity! The women shooting randomly at the enemies! What are they shooting at, the brothel courtyard walls? Music is not as it should be for a kotha/brothel setup. Most such film in the past have set high standards. Cinematography is of standard. Dialogue is good though oft heard before. Editing, as in all such films where the director loves all that he has shot, is weak. A lot could be trimmed.

Performances by all concerned are excellent starting with Vidya Balan leading the band. Other women are good but those who stand out are -- Gauhar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Indrani Chakraborty and Gracy Goswami. Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor are okay.

Pitobash Tripathy impresses. Naseeruddin Shah has no scope. Chunky Pandey is pathetic. Rajesh Sharma is good as usual. Sumit Nijhawan makes a mark but Vivek Mushran is passable.

Begum Jaan is a purposeless film. Having opened poorly despite a national holiday today, its prospects for improvement are suspect.

Producers: Mahesh Bhatt, Mukesh Bhatt.

Director: Srijit Mukherji.

Cast: Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Priyanka Setia, Ridheema Tiwary, Flora Saini, Raviza Chauhan, Poonam Rajput,Indrani Chakraborty, Gracy Goswami, Pitobash Tripathy, Sumit Nijhawan, Ashish Vidyarthi, Chunky Pandey, Rajit Kapoor, Vivek Mushran, Rajesh Sharma, Naseeruddin Shah.

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