Why Begum Jaan is Unnecessary

Pop Culture

Why Begum Jaan is Unnecessary

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In getting the chance to remake Begum Jaan from his critically acclaimed Bengali period drama, Rajkahini, Srijit Mukherji had the power that Sholay’s Ramesh Sippy wished he possessed when Ram Gopal Varma, Brand Ambassador of Drunk Twitter Fight Club™,  butchered the 1975 classic by turning it into the burning wreck that is Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. But, what the seven-time National Award-winning director did with this power instead, was use all of it to dislodge Ram Gopal Varma from the honour of having made the worst remake in Bollywood, and claimed the title for himself. RGV may have made a really bad movie, but what Srijit Mukherji has done is make a wholly unnecessary one.

The story of 11 sex workers valiantly fighting a lost battle to save their brothel, when a line dividing India and Pakistan is drawn through it, is undoubtedly a fascinating concept, but one that the director had already executed in a fairly flawed Rajkahini, spearheaded by Rituparna Sengupta. With Begum Jaan, one would naturally expect Mukherji to grab the chance with both hands and go for a significantly improved do-over and hope like hell that it redeems him. Instead, Mukherji gets wholly confused between the meaning of the words “retelling” and “copy pasting” and creates a film that is almost exactly like the one he has already created.

For all his emphatic on-the-record statements about cutting the weak cinematic fat to make Begum Jaan tighter or promising and starkly different from Rajkahini, Mukherji repeats the same mistakes and dishes out identical fare, leaving a few sub-standard additions. Changing the setting of the film to Punjab from Bengal means little for the director who copy pastes his characters, their quirks, translates dialogues word by word, and even repeats the same background artistes from Rajkahini.

Just like in Rajkahini, he births the 11 characters with interesting story lines but doesn’t allow them to grow.

Take the scenes between Indian Congress Party representative Harshvardhan (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Muslim League representative Ilias (Rajit Kapur). To highlight how Partition has come between the two childhood friends, who have now turned foes, the director replicates the jarring half-shots that he was widely criticised for in Rajkahini.  In the scene where the two friends are talking to each from across the table, the camera, first shows you half of Harshvardhan’s face while he is talking and then immediately turns to Ilias’s face, again capturing only half of it, to drive home the point that despite the Partition, both of them are two sides of the same coin. That feels unnecessary and often distracts you from focusing on what transpires on the screen.

Mukherji also faithfully carries his flaw of not fleshing out the characters of the 11 other prostitutes to Begum Jaan. Just like in Rajkahini, he births the 11 characters with interesting story lines but doesn’t allow them to grow. We are told bits and pieces of their past, and are left to draw our own conclusions with it. Jameela (Priyanka Setia), for instance, is shown looking at a picture of a man from a trunk, after catering to the needs of a customer, and wiping off tears from her eyes. Her daughter is shown asking Amma (Ila Arun) about her father, but that storyline is left wide open. Also left open are the sexualities of Amba (Ridheema Tiwari) and Maina (Flora Saini), who have sex with men, but are shown kissing each other in one scene. A gang-rape victim is left at Begum Jaan’s door but has nothing to say or do in this film too, except stare blankly or be fed on a platter to the local raja by Begum Jaan, as a reward for protecting their brothel. As a result of these barely breathing characters and unexplored interpersonal relationships, we are left astounded when these 11 screechy women, who are overtly fond of the word “randi”, get together and decide to die fighting for the brothel. WHY is the giant question that every viewer in left grappling with.

As audiences we are kind. We go with the flow and grant the director this inexplicable coming-together-to-fight kind of narrative and even grant him 11 incomplete characters for the sake of one living, breathing, unforgettable central character, who carries all these flaws valiantly on her back. After all, in spite of all its flaws, that is the one thing Rajkahini got right. It accurately captured Rituparna’s character as the menacing brothel madam, who lives on her own terms and puts her work above all. But in his excitement at finally getting Vidya Balan to fulfil his dream of playing Begum (Vidya Balan was Srijit Mukherji’s first choice for Rajkahini), Mukherji loses the focus on the story and instead makes it all about Vidya Balan, the actress, instead of Begum Jaan, the character. Balan’s Begum becomes a parody of herself – shifting inexplicably from scary to happy and bordering on whiny, but the downfall of the feisty Begum sees her being reduced to a damsel in distress in front of the local raja. That’s when we realise that Begum Jaan, the movie, just like Begum Jaan, the character, is beyond redemption.

At the end of three hours, Begum Jaan leaves you wondering what Mukherji could have possibly told the Bhatt brothers, to get them to back a movie that is a remake of an originally flawed one, with an actress who hasn’t given a powerful performance in over five years, just on the back of his inchoate and unfulfilled desire to work with her. It is an indulgence of crores that will go down in cinematic history as perhaps the worst reason to make a movie. In remaking Begum Jaan, Srijit Mukherji has not succeeded in telling or showing us anything we didn’t already know, but he has hopefully shown the producers that if they do plan to fund a remake in the future, let it be for reasons better than this one.