Banners: Vishesh Films, Play Entertainment
Producers: Mukesh Bhatt, Vishesh Bhatt, Play Entertainment
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Ila Arun, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Vivek Mushran, Chunky Pandey, Poonam Singh Rajput, Ridheema Tiwari, Flora Saini, Priyanka Setia, Mishti Chakraborty, Sumit Nijhawan, Pitobash, Rajesh Sharma
Writers: Srijit Mukherji (story & screenplay), Kausar Munir (screenplay& dialogue)
Music: Anu Mallik
Begum Jaan had the perfect formula to be a clear winner. It pivots on an actress who amplifies her characters with every performance she delivers; it is backed by a production house, which for the last three decades has delivered many hard-hitting films; and is helmed by a director who cinema is a National Film Award winner and a name to reckon with in Bengali.
So, is it a clear winner? Before we get to that, we must mention that the film is a remake of the Bengali film Rajkahini, which released in 2015 and went on to many international film festivals. It promises to take you on an emotional roller coaster ride from beginning to end but, sadly, it does not deliver on this promise.
The proceedings are inconsistent, at times prompting you to connect with the film and at others, leaving you detached. On the plus side, the film is raw and edgy but it is not as thrilling as it should have been. The bottom line: Begum Jaan fails to entertain you.
The film starts in present day New Delhi, where a young couple is being harassed by a bunch of boys in the middle of the night. While the girl is being chased by the boys, she is saved by an old woman. The film then rewinds to the era of Independence, when India’s Independence is announced and partition starts to unfold.
During this time, Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) lives a carefree life with her girls in a large brothel, until the tumultuous time of partition hits. The boundary between India and Pakistan was announced and those who wanted to relocate had just four weeks to do so. Begum Jaan’s brothel falls slap-bang in the middle of the boundary line and she is sent a notice by the government, asking her to vacate.
A stubborn Begum Jaan refuses to leave and seeks help from the local King (Naseeruddin Shah) whose patronage over Begum Jaan is the reason for her daredevil nature. After she refuses to bend under pressure, Indian National Congress leader Hariprasad (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Muslim League leader, Illyas (Rajit Kapoor) find violent ways to threaten her. How the film unfolds further forms the crux of the story.
Director Srijit Mukherji tries to make every frame look as real as possible but poor writing is the biggest stumbling block. This is reflected in the complete lack of empathy that the characters evoke even as they endure trauma.
This is Mukherji’s biggest failing with this film although he has handled a few dramatic moments with aplomb. Some of these sequences worth mentioning are the scene where Surjeet (Pitobash) and Rubina (Gauahar Khan) show their love for each other; when Begum Jaan names Shabnam (Mishti Chakraborty); when Kabir (Chunky Pandey) starts to infiltrate Begum Jaan’s house; and when Begum Jaan sings for the King. Another moment that has been captured beautifully is the climax scene, where Begum Jaan and her girls are fighting Kabir and his men. However, you wonder why most of the characters shout throughout the film.
Editing by Monisha R Baldawa is up to the mark. Cinematography by Gopi Bhagat is another asset. Dialogue, while good in some places, lacks punch. With a runtime of 134 minutes, the film is well balanced pre- and post-interval. Costumes and locations support the story. Music and background score compliment the narrative.
Performance-wise, Vidya Balan is phenomenal as Begum Jaan but this is not one of her best performances, thanks to poor writing. Naseeruddin Shah plays his part with brilliance. Ila Arun plays her character in right earnest. Gauahar Khan impresses. Pallavi Sharda plays her part well. Rajit Kapoor does justice to his part. Ashish Vidyarthi is notable. Vivek Mushran impresses. Chunky Pandey is superb. Sumit Nijhawan is okay. Rajesh Sharma plays his part with conviction. Pitobash is good. Mishti Chakraborty captures the essence of her role. Others, from Poonam Singh Rajput to Ridheema Tiwari, Flora Saini and Priyanka Setia, support adequately.