Begum Jaan packs more Partition into 130 minutes than one could possibly hope for. It’s dedicated to Manto and Ismat Chughtai, even though its brand of wit suggests cudgel, not scalpel. The film has migration, communal violence, multiple rapes, a brief scene of interreligious harmony, burnings, lynchings, dismemberings, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, and more symbols of spatial, geographical and emotional division than you could shake a Ritwik Ghatak memoir at. This isn’t historical drama, it’s Partition porn.
There is, at the heart of it, the germ of a good idea. It’s 1947, and India is about to gain freedom—and become two nations. When the authorities get down to the construction of a border fence, they find out the line passes through a brothel run by the formidable Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). She’s handed an eviction notice by two officials from what will soon be India and Pakistan, Srivastava (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilyas (Rajit Kapoor), old friends who now find themselves estranged (there’s a metaphor in there somewhere). She tells them that she isn’t moving, and that if they try anything, she’ll see that their legs and hands are partitioned from their bodies.
Though it’s set almost entirely in 1947, writer-director Mukherji (remaking his own Bengali film Rajkahini as Begum Jaan) has no problem appropriating modern-day crises to fit, or awkwardly dangle off of, his narrative. Take the opening sequence, which begins on a bus in Delhi in 2016. A group of drunk men board and start hassling a young couple, forcing them off the vehicle. They start pummeling the boy, and two of them bear down on the girl. Just then, an old woman with braids in her hair comes forward and, to their horror, starts to strip. The allusions to the 16 December Delhi rape case and the 2004 anti-AFSPA protests in Manipur are impossible to miss, and their twin use in this scene has a lurid, opportunistic quality.
This scene starts the film off at a level of hysteria that never really abates. The women of the brothel are from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan; their conversations are a cacophonous mix of accents, none of which sound quite right (including a variety of north Indian dialects in your first Hindi film seems like quite a risk). Balan initially plays Begum Jaan as a steely manipulator but, as the film progresses, she’s made to hyperventilate and flail about like a less capable actor. The film gathers a number of dubious, if specific, honours along the way: worst throwing-stones-in-a-river-as-an-outlet-for-feelings scene, most implausible averting of attempted rape, worst Mexican standoff ever.
This film has nothing new to tell us about this tumultuous time in our history: the British were apparently very bad, so were politicians on both sides, so were royal families. This is the kind of broadly simplistic film in which a little girl can ask, “Is it the same thing to kill a Hindu and a Muslim?” The awkward combination of Partition-era exploitation and TV serial-ish melodrama is further exacerbated by occasional arty touches. One particularly jarring visual effect recurred in the scenes with Srivastava and Ilyas. Whenever there was a close-up on either, only half the face appeared onscreen. I’m partitioning their faces, Mukherji seems to be saying. Go figure.
Begum Jaan harks back to two films from the heyday of parallel cinema. The first is Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a far superior film about a group of prostitutes bossed around by a fearsome madam. There also appear to be several nods to Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987): Naseeruddin Shah appears in both films as a rapacious man with a taste for gramophone music, both feature a bearded protector with a gun. These films had some of the most fascinating female characters in all of Hindi cinema; Begum Jaan isn’t even the best film about a strong, unapologetic woman released in the last few weeks. That would be Anaarkali of Aarah, a film that serves its defiance with a side of humour instead of beating viewers over the head with a history book.