Begum Jaan opens on a strong note. In present day Delhi, some thugs are ruthlessly violating a woman. But in one altering moment they are shamed instead. Writer-director Srijit Mukherji makes a point about how women have had to harness the power of the female body to face up to bullies. In that the film’s theme is quickly established. The movie then shifts decades into the past, when a closely-knit group of sex workers stand up against the tyranny of men and their politics. In the end, these women grab a choice with both hands even when it might look as if they don’t have any.
It’s a shame then that the film nosedives into an abyss of hammy over-the- top acting and clichéd writing. Begum Jaan is a remake of Mukherji’s own 2015 Bengali film Rajkahini, and it tells the story of a madam in 1947 (Vidya Balan) who finds out that the partition line that will separate India and Pakistan neatly runs right through her sprawling brothel. Government officials try to convince Begum, the prostitutes working for her and their hotchpotch family to leave the brothel, but she digs her heels in, inviting violence from the disgruntled men.
The film has an interesting premise and Vidya is commanding as the feared brothel owner who lords over her home. What lets it down is the shrill treatment. Virtually every character – side players even – are prone to loud outbursts, which means you’ll be searching for a quiet spa after the assault on your ears.
It doesn’t help that the narrative is routinely sidetracked by examples of Razia Sultan, the Rani of Jhansi, and Rani Padmavati of Mewar. Stories of their valor and bravado are passed down to a young child, with Vidya imagined in these roles, thereby suggesting that Begum is viewed as a savior by her girls, her faithful bodyguard (Sumit Nijhawan), a manservant (Pitobash Tripathi), and an elderly matriarch (Ila Arun). They stand up to the Congress and Muslim League officials (Rajit Kapur and Ashish Vidyarthi respectively) who want to send them packing. Unfortunately, however, Begum is also let down by trusted allies.
Mukherji packs too much into this narrative with multiple secondary characters and their back-stories. The violent incidents and constant swearing come at you so often, you turn slightly numb. Vidya throws herself into the part, but plays Begum Jaan so many octaves above normal – it’s a waste of her acting talent. Only Gauhar Khan as one of the girls in Begum’s inner circle, and Chunky Pandey in a slimy villain role, stand out in the sea of characters. The rest belong to the Highstrung Academy of Over-actors.
I’m going with a generous two out of five for Begum Jaan. There is a strong feminist statement here, but unfortunately it’s drowned out by all the noise.