National Award winning director, a National Award winning actress and a subject as disturbing as Partition and you brace yourself for a heartrending tale when Radcliffe line tore deep into the heart and soul of one nation that became two.
Alas, Begum Jaan that moves at a frantic pace in the first half is not even half as searing as you expect it to be. Indeed, the setting is right, blame is rightly laid at Sir Radcliffe’s table for dividing two nations on absurd lines.
Some historic facts are reiterated while focusing on the brothel and its inmates. Vidya Balan as Begum Jaan the brothel keeper is in top form. Tough, soft, vulnerable, self-depreciating, mocking and finally rebellious, she evokes the right shade each time. Ila Arun as the matriarch, who keeps recounting tales of valour from the pages of history, is equally effective. Certainly the film has its moments too: Vidya checking out herself in the mirror before meeting her patron raja sahib (Naseeruddin Shah in a special appearance).
The opening sequence and the later one where lecherous men are forced to see their mothers and daughters in the body of a woman make the point as well. Indeed, as far as women go, little has changed in how they are viewed and treated. The fact that the film doesn’t take sides between Hindus and Muslims too is a plus. It shows both sides/ communities as equally responsible for (and victims of) the carnage.
But for these minor redeeming features, the film runs the hackneyed distance most of the time and fails to capture the pangs of Partition. Melodramatic and over the top, the reality gets so terribly exaggerated that the trauma of the women trapped between two nations is only fleetingly touching.
Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor as officers assigned the task of drawing the line, despite being such fine actors become caricaturised representatives of both nations. Yes, in the anti-climax, eyes turn a trifle moist, all thanks to a competent Ila Arun and the eternal song Woh subah kabhi to aayegi. The twist to the song with words Woh subah humi to laayenge is a sobering reminder especially in the communally volatile times that we live in. But the film is far from sober, rather is overtly clichéd and loud in its content and dramatization.
The character of master ji (Vivek Mushran) for instance is totally inexplicable except that it fits in the larger scheme of patriarchy. To use a micro story to create a bigger picture is a fair enough ploy. Only this tale of prostitutes works neither at micro nor macro level. What could/ ought to have been a powerful account of the cataclysmic times and the suffering of individuals falls short on most parameters. Even the battery of fine actors (Gauhar Khan looks fetchingly pretty, Chunky Pandey is sufficiently menacing and Pitobash Tripathy endearing in his copycat antics as well as the romantic touch) can’t keep it on the right side of cinematic viewing. The emotive connect of the disturbing subject is completely lost as the film fails to nail the connection.