begum jaan review

Vidya Balan plays the madam of a brothel in “Begum Jaan.” (photo provided)

This is one banner that surely needed a reinvention after a series of duds and, more importantly, bad films, including a spate of sequels. The music emanating from Vishesh Films, which at one time boasted of varied excellence for over almost 20 years through “Aashiqui,” “Naajayaz,” “Ghulam,” “Jism,” “Saaya” and “Gangster,” among many others, also needed a complete overhaul.

By making this intense and raw story set in the traumatic era of Partition, the Bhatts have reinvented right on time — and what a reinvention it is! Anu Malik composes his best music since “Jaan-E-Mann” and “Umrao Jaan,” all of 11 years ago, rekindling the glorious musical era of this banner that went out with “Tum Mile” way back in 2009. The story has the intensity and raw emotional voltage of Bhatt’s early films like “Arth,” “Saaransh,” “Naam,” “Kaash” and “Daddy” and is yet different in subject and treatment.

Based on a National award-winning Bengali film, “Rajkahini,” this is one remake that deserves nothing less than hosannas, never mind if the nostalgia brigade considers the original as superior. After all, they should know that when the audience is restricted to one region and language, the compulsion to balance creativity and commerce is less. But it is this very challenge that is heightened for the common writer-director Srijit Mukherjee.

At another level, this film marks the complete reinvention of the ‘80s leading man, Chunky Pandey, ‘90s hero Vivek Mushran, theater and occasional film artiste Ila Arun and “Besharam’s” tepid actress Pallavi Sharda as Gulabo.

To say that despite so many powerful and effective turns by co-actors, it is Balan who effortlessly becomes the mainstay and powerhouse of the film is to understate the obvious. She is phenomenal: ugly, bitchy, brave and admirable, fiercely loyal and compassionate to her girls and the staff of her home. Her eyes, lined with the correct make-up for a brothel madam in those times, speak and glint eloquently, whether she is being naïve, ruthless or just angry. Yes, after a chain of duds again, Balan is back, showing the sheer brilliance of her best movies, be it “Parineeta,” “Paa,” “Kahaani” or “The Dirty Picture.” In Balan’s case, it is not a reinvention —it’s just that she has got her best movie and role in the last five years!

The story of “Begum Jaan” is simple: A huge brothel somewhere in undivided Punjab is the world of Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). It is flourishing with the patronage of the local and completely debauched Raja (king), played by Naseeruddin Shah.

In June 1947, Britain appointed Sir Cyril Radcliffe to chair two Boundary Commissions — one for Bengal and one for Punjab, splitting the country into India and Pakistan in both states randomly. The line in Punjab thus runs midway through Begum Jaan’s ‘haveli’ and so the authorities from both sides of the border — two old friends Ilyas (Rajit Kapur) and Harshvardhan (Ashish Vidyarthi), inform Begum that she would have to vacate, as the building must go.

Begum refuses, and not even threats work. When the doughty woman says that she would kill and die rather than obey petty politics, a goon (Chunky Pandey) is hired to persuade the women — or else. Within this complex narrative and its inevitable culmination are also well-integrated cross-currents, love angles and back stories and some shocker characters who change colors. The high-point of “Begum Jaan” is the beginning of the film, but to understand that, the rest of the movie needs to be watched.

And that the film is eminently watchable is a given after the first 20 minutes. What is creditable is that even the rather stretched second half works. The after-climax is also edit-worthy for its length.

A large chunk of the film’s strength comes from the dialogues (Mukherjee with Munir), which are raw but never degenerate into ‘trendy’ (sic) expletives. The cinematography (Gopi Bhagat) goes with the moods of the narrative and is all the more effective for that, ditto Indrajeet Sengupta’s old-style background music —and by that we mean, a lavish and evocatively moody score.

Munir’s lyrics are many cuts above her norm — here is a lyricist who clearly needs good directors and subjects to deliver. Anu Malik’s work, “O Re Kaharo” and “Aah Nikli Hai Yahaan” leads in catchiness, while the Holi song tops in substance and “Prem Mein Tohre” leads in mass appeal. And we must say that Malik does a superb job of re-creating Khayyam’s classic from “Phir Subah Hogi.”

The cast is uniformly excellent, with few exceptions. We found Shah very routine, but Chunky Pandey (unrecognizable as the goon), Ila Arun (as Amma, who loves to tell stories till the end — literally) and Vivek Mushran as ‘masterji’ are all fantastic. Rajit Kapur and Ashish Vidyarthi as the officials are alright — and let us for a change overlook the fact that the Muslim is shown to have more scruples via-s-vis his Hindu counterpart, which is clearly done deliberately for politically-correct ‘secular’ applause (sic again). However, they are both effortlessly overshadowed by the gifted Rajesh Sharma as the police officer.

And frankly, I fell in love with the spirit of the girls — and how the actresses played them. Though Pallavi Sharda stood out for her emotive strength among them all, each of the others — Flora Saini (another revamp after the forgettable 2004 “Love In Nepal” and one more recent aberration I cannot recall), Poonam Rajput, Priyanka Setia, Ridheema Tiwari, Mishti and Raviza Chauhan are superb. And while Sumit Rijhawan as Salim is competent, Pitobash Tripathy as Surjeet and Gauahar Khan as Rubina stand tall.

If you want gut-wrenching truths told with searing honesty and sans showiness and sham, check out this film. You will take back quite a few characters and sequences from it. This is one film that haunts me even as I write this review. And I hope that the box-office is kind to it.

Rating: ****

Vishesh Films, NH Movies and Play Entertainment present "Begum Jaan"

Produced by: Mukesh Bhatt & Mahesh Bhatt

Directed by: Srijit Mukherjee

Written by: Srijit Mukherjee & Kausar Munir

Music: Anu Malik

Starring: Vidya Balan, Pallavi Sharda, Gauahar Khan, Ila Arun, Priyanka Setia, Ridheema Tiwari, Flora Saini, Poonam Rajput, Mishti, Gracy Goswami, Raviza Chauhan, Pitobash Tripathy, Sumeet Nijhawan, Ashish Vidyarthi, Chunky Pandey, Rajit Kapoor, Vivek Mushran, Rajesh Sharma and special appearance by Naseeruddin Shah, Srijit Mukherjee and others.

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