Sir Cyril Radcliffe probably didn’t think about the misery the line, which was named after him that divided Indian and Pakistan after partition, would bring upon the people living closer to it. Or, maybe the unethical British Empire saved its most potent weapon for the last.
The Radcliffe Line divided one nation into three parts: East Pakistan, West Pakistan and India. Director Srijit Mukherji’s Bengali film Rajkahini featured a group of men and women living in a house situated right in the middle of East Pakistan and West Bengal.
Now, Mukherji shifts this house to the Punjab-Pakistan border in his debut Hindi film Begum Jaan.
Here lives a brothel owner Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) and her girls. The local king has taken them under his wings and that’s a relationship Begum loves to flaunt. The locals are scared of her, so is the administration. Her crumbling mansion is her kingdom. Nobody dares talk to her in a mocking tone. However, her inner self is much mellowed and benevolent than what she cares to show and she knows what it means to be a sex worker.
Law enforcing agencies find it difficult to dislodge Begum from the line and that leads to a war which is layered, unequal and self-explanatory. At different stages, it showcases various shapes and forms of patriarchy. If it suggests male domination as the root cause of the problem, it also seeks a solution through the same process. But all this will come later.
We first need to understand Begum Jaan. A hookah-snorting, razor-tongued woman with authoritarian air, she is the master of her fate. From Gujarati to Bengali to Awadhi, her brothel has women of every caste, language and religion. Some are riot victims, some are simply thrown out of their houses and some have failed in love. Begum knows all their secrets and saves them from being homeless. New and younger girls are anyway sought in her business.
She keeps reminding them of how she saved them in a bid to win them over, but she could well have avoided it as genuine loyalty for Begum Jaan is not difficult to trace among the girls.
It’s a typical good woman-bad business kind of character. She will offer explanations for morally ambiguous decisions and will take credit for all the right moves. Vidya Balan adds her persona and charm to Begum Jaan and dominates the screen from the word go.
A still from Begum Jaan.
The moment we meet Begum and watch her ruthlessly slapping a new girl, we understand that Mukherji is preparing her for a volcanic eruption. She says, “Aazaadi keval mardon ke liye hoti hai,” (Freedom is only for men) and sets the ball rolling.
It’s going to be a fight between two genders with traitors from both sides crossing the fences. From an ageing king to meek farmers, men treat women as a mere commodity. Begum is not willing to take things lying down and thus she fights each of these men.
The side stories of Gauahar Khan-Pitobash and Pallavi Sharda-Vivek Mushran reinforce the same idea. The men in Begum Jaan do everything in their might to harass women and keep them under check.
In fact, the film begins with an elderly woman offering her body to a group of potential rapists in order to protect a younger woman in 2016’s Delhi suggesting the power dynamics haven’t changed much since Independence.
It’s an important and notice-worthy statement to make, but the efforts to present many facets of the problem at the same time takes a toll on the film. Many stories collide and fail to become one thick central line.