Bollywood Film Review “Begum Jaan”



First, the Recap:

Fighting for what’s yours. Circumstances, often not of our own making, can threaten to undermine, take away, or utterly destroy that which we’ve worked so hard to achieve, to create, to maintain. The fortitude we then choose to display in the face of such conditions not only tests our own resolve, but that of those closest to us and the lengths they are willing to go themselves to protect what’s sacred. In 1948 India, it is a country in chaos. Despite newly gained freedom from British rule, a last effort is put into effect, called The Radcliffe Line, which will divide the nation into India and Pakistan. As the internal strife between Hindus and Muslims ensues, the division causing blatant displacement of citizens, one house stands to be literally cut in half by the new line, a brothel run by Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan).

Having established the well-known house of ill repute, Begum Jaan has also made it the new home for the girls under her employ, including Gulabo (Pallavi Sharda), Rubina (Gauhar Khan), Maina (Flora Saini), Jamila (Priyanka Setia), Amba (Ridhima Tiwari), Rani (Poonam Rajput), Lata (Raviza Chauhan), and new resident Shabnam (Mishti). Simply trying to ply their trade and live peacefully, an unanticipated visit from new local inspectors Ilias (Rajit Kapoor) and Harshvardhan (Ashish Vidyarthi) plus head policeman Shyam (Rajesh Sharma), threatens to shake their existence to the core, as they are given notice they must vacate the premises due to the line’s charted path or face the consequences. It soon becomes a fight against impossible odds for Begum Jaan and her girls as they choose to stand their ground for loyalty, friendship, and legacy.

Next, my Mind:

So, if you’re somehow expecting to take on director Srijit Mukherji’s newest effort as your usually anticipated Bollywood epic, glitz and glamour, high budget, flashy feature effort, then you will flat out be disappointed by this film. This is nothing against said mass appeal projects, as I love those without question, but this film is an independent-minded movie through and through, which for this reviewer, was a decidedly potent strength. Very much narrative and character-centric in execution, a massive ensemble cast, gritty and grounded visuals, plus themes of unconditional devotion, allegiance, facing obstacles, forbidden love and betrayal are all combined amidst a very harrowing and sometimes blatantly unsettling tale that showcases how the actions of a few can so greatly impact the greater whole. Now, that said, there were times where the emotional quotient in certain sequences seemed just a tad forced, almost going for too much dramatic impact, hence getting slightly overplayed/overacted instead. Elements that were intended to be specifically expressive, provoking, demonstrative, or eloquent sometimes ended up in just plain melodrama. While perhaps expected given the overall themes being explored, let’s face it, this isn’t a feel-good story, even with some lighter-hearted moments being offered.

Balan is a complete treasure here as the titular title character Begum Jaan, infusing the brothel’s perpetually hookah-smoking madam with a quietly intense fire and dynamic vibrancy that is often presented in a more subdued fashion, but can then erupt into a feisty, volatile, aggressively ardent demeanor that more that shows why she’s the one in charge. Yet, what makes it more affecting is when there are those moments of total vulnerability demonstrated, rare as they are for the character, that truly indicate the guarded state Begum Jaan usually lives within. Watching these vigorous and bold fluctuations in her emotions paired with the totally invested love she has for all her girls is solidly played by Balan via her firmly established performance. Sharda, Khan, Saini, Setia, Tiwari, Rajput, Chauhan, and Mishti provide excellent support as the brothel’s working girls, all presented as those who came from various broken backgrounds and/or situations from which Begum Jaan became their benefactor, taskmaster, and escape. Their sometimes in-fighting amongst themselves is still a stirring picture of the upheaval they might feel in wanting better lives, but the undying fealty to each other and Begum Jaan is undeniable, especially apparent in the film’s gut-wrenching yet inspiring finale.

Additional key turns are given from Kapoor and Vidyarthi as politicos with an agenda to enforce until a sobering wake-up call shows them price of their choices, Sharma as the police chief whose own sense of obligation takes a serious and disturbing hit, Naseeruddin Shah as the brothel’s primary protector Rajaji, Vivek Mushran as the teacher known only as Master who harbors a secret love, Pitobash as resident “pimp” Sujeet, whose antics hide a strong protective heart towards the girls, Sumit Nijhawan as Salim, a former policeman turned resident enforcer, Gracy Goswami as Jamila’s daughter Laadli, who has one of more poignant moments in the film, Ila Arun as Aunty, the household’s storyteller and “mother”, and Chunky Pandey as Kabir, a remorseless mercenary and brutal thorn in the brothel’s side. It total, for the weaknesses it does have here and there, it is the nature of smaller overall productions and shouldn’t take away from the fact that “Begum Jaan” is a worthy dramatic period piece that should not be ignored, its theme of sacrifice for what you believe in standing out strong. It’s a new era of Indian independent film. Time to take notice.

As always, this is all for your consideration and comment.  Until next time, thank you for reading!

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