Begum Jaan is a classic example of a movie that goes on to win the battle, but loses the war.
The tale of a group of feisty prostitutes led by Vidya Balan resolutely clutching onto their home where they do their business seems like a trite battle to be launched when India was in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of a bloody partition by the British colonists. There’s riots and carnage looming, but this film focuses on a singular chapter of how it affects 11 sex workers, who are living at the fringes of Punjab.
Their ferocious fight to salvage their home after they are slapped with an eviction notice so that their home could be razed to the ground and an India-Pakistan check post could be built seems like an unworthy cause to be attached to. The women seem like rebels without a worthy cause.
But that’s not to say that the actors didn’t bring their best to the table. Balan is stirring as the formidable boss of a group of loud, screechy sex workers. Her body language (effortlessly sexy) and her acidic dialogues on the nature of their trade is entertaining. She is dignified even while pleading with her royal client (Naseeruddin Shah) to employ his clout to ward off the eviction notice.
While the film has a number of talented actors, it’s Balan who shines because her character is relatively strong. Her strange rapport with her employees is often a hit and a miss. The scenes in which they celebrate holi and eat together reflects an easy camaraderie, but their collective need to break out into an uncouth, screechy laughter is perplexing and grating. Naturally, attempts have been made to make Balan’s character heroic. She’s like the messiah of society’s rejects and that isn’t always convincing.
Pallavi Sharda, Gauahar Khan and a cherubic looking Vivek Mushran as an educated social worker support her main act ably.
While the first half is an extended version of the trailer and is laborious, the second half picks up pace considerably. The attempts of the establishment to smoke them out of their own domain is interesting, but somehow it’s difficult to connect to them. The subtext of ruthless colonialism, the aftermath of partition of a fractured India and the rumble of Hindi-Muslim riots makes the film cluttered and heavy.
Watch this only if you are fan of Balan.
Run time: 131 minutes
Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Vidya Balan, Pallavi Sharda, Vivek Mushran, Rajit Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah
GN Rating: 2 out of 5.