A still from ‘Begum Jaan’.
A still from ‘Begum Jaan’.

‘Begum Jaan’ is an assault on the senses

Srijit Mukherji's magnum opus 'Begum Jaan' is an utter travesty to feminism, cinema and female actors in the Hindi film industry

It’s a double-edged sword when Chunky Pandey is the best thing in a film starring Vidya Balan, Naseerudin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapur. On one hand, it means we never realized Chunky’s talent (I do not want to call him Pandey, simply because his anecdote about why he is named Chunky is so spectacularly amusing). On the other, it means that cinema and what we have come to consider as cinematic talent have both been shot dead at the altar of my Bengali brethren Srijit Mukherji’s magnum opus—Begum Jaan.

This hurts especially because a couple of weeks ago, on the stage of the fabulously branded film awards show, Fair & Lovely Zee Cine Awards, five female members of the Begum Jaan cast came on stage. They spoke of the feminist film that it was, the almost all-female cast and how in their dedication to reality, while playing sex workers in 1947, they had stopped going to the parlour and getting themselves tweezed and waxed. I was most impressed, not just by their lack of beautification, which is a big deal in an industry in which Priyanka Chopra playing a specially-abled girl in Barfi sported waxed legs and perfectly coiffed hair. But also by the fact that here was yet another film in which women played the protagonists. Begum Jaan is a remake of Mukherji’s own Bengali film, Rajkahini. And here he was, a multiple national award winner with a film helmed by Vidya Balan, who I suspect is trying to be our generation’s answer to Shabana Azmi.

But all my excitement turned to horror when I saw the assault on the senses and the utter travesty to feminism, cinema and female actors in the Hindi film industry, which is Begum Jaan.

Let me count the ways in which this is an assault on the senses (literally as well, because all the women keep screaming and shouting at each other). The film is about a brothel run by Vidya Balan as Begum Jaan, which finds itself bang in the middle of the Radcliffe Line which was to divide India and Pakistan. Begum Jaan stays in this haveli with her motley crew of sex workers, two Great Danes and two male henchmen. She refuses to vacate her haveli and the film is about what ensues as a result. It is ostensibly about women’s freedom, feminism, a woman standing up to men (Ashish Vidyarthi as a representative of Congress and Rajit Kapur of the Muslim League and Chunky Pandey as their henchman) and about female sexual independence.

Everything which should warm the cockles of any feminist’s heart.

That is, till you see the first sequence which clearly alludes to the 16 December gangrape and shows that the victim would have not been raped only if an old woman had stood in front of her and undressed for the rapists. The sight of the old naked woman would have made the would-be rapists penitent and run away. All this is shown to us, with a visual of the Indian flag flying in the background. This lack of understanding that rape is as much—if not more—about establishing power, as it is about sex, is displayed twice. Later in the film, a police officer is about to rape a sex worker, till the sex worker’s teenage daughter stands in front of her mother and undresses, resulting in the police officer not just changing his mind, but also retching.

I cannot get my head around Mukherji’s understanding of rape, and how simplistic his worldview is on how to stop rapes from being committed. It truly boggles the mind.

Now to the main storyline. A film starring an actress par excellence who refuses to bow to commercial diktats, as a madam of a brothel, who is asked to vacate the property by politicians has been made before. It’s a film called Mandi. It starred Shabana Azmi as the madam, the sex workers who lived under her iron rule were Smita Patil, Soni Razdan, Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah and Ila Arun, amongst others. Naseerudin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Om Puri and Saeed Jaffrey starred in various pivotal roles. Mandi was a film about women trying to be independent, charting their own futures, banding together, and using their sexuality as a tool to ensure their freedom. It showed Azmi taking a decision to protect not just her business, but also the women who lived with her.

There is a scene in Begum Jaan in which Ila Arun is crying on her bed. I think it was because she remembered the script of Mandi, and had finally understood the meaning of the saying “from the sublime to the ridiculous".

The women in Begum Jaan don’t like each other. They spend the entire duration of the film, other than for one lesbian interlude, shrieking at and often slapping each other. Why anyone would want to live with them, is beyond my understanding. But more importantly, why anyone would want to live with Begum Jaan or idolize her escapes me. And she has an unibrow for no good reason. After all, all the other women in the brothel have perfectly tweezed eyebrows. Do they dislike her so much that they refuse to offer to thread her eyebrows for her?

A unibrow, two Great Danes, many female actors, absurd representations of rape, screeching women and Chunky Pandey, do not a feminist—or even an entertaining— film make.
A unibrow, two Great Danes, many female actors, absurd representations of rape, screeching women and Chunky Pandey, do not a feminist—or even an entertaining— film make.

Most importantly, for a film which is a commentary on how the British ruled India without regard for what Indians wanted, the protagonist does the same. Begum Jaan is shown as a woman who believes that because she rescued some of the sex workers from destitution or abuse, and now feeds them and provides them with a roof over their head, they must do whatever she says. Even if that means having sex with men they’d rather not sleep with. In one case, a young girl who is rescued from being beaten by some men, is brought to the brothel. She has stopped speaking out of shock. Begum Jaan proceeds to slap her multiple times and soon forces her to have sex with a Maharaja (played by Naseerudin Shah), literally singing a song in the same room as he rapes the girl. Why? Because he can save her brothel from having to be shut down. A benevolent ruler, if ever there was one.

Most ludicrously, Begum Jaan decides she and her sex workers would rather have a gunfight with foot-soldiers of the Congress and Muslim League, than vacate the haveli she lives in. Even if this means everyone will die. Why does she not shift to another place? It’s not like she will have any business once the border fences are put up. It’s simply because it will allow her to burn herself and her sex workers alive. Her character makes no sense, her motivations are unclear, she is exploitative, uneducated, unaware of political ramifications, thinks the women under her charge are chattel and sex toys, and is foolhardy—and has that deadly unibrow.

She is essentially an idiotic man. In that sense, it is a feminist drama because it makes her equal to a man.

It’s a sad day when a film is made about women, starring multiple women, and it turns out to be as ill-thought out as this one. It makes you almost long for a Salman Khan flick such as Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, which made no pretence at feminism. What I would suggest is that you watch Begum Jaan and then watch Mandi. If only to remind yourself that a unibrow, two Great Danes, many female actors, absurd representations of rape, screeching women and Chunky Pandey, do not a feminist—or even an entertaining— film make.