(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Begum Jaan is the remake of Srijit Mukherji’s Rajkahini, that reflects the Bengali film’s original location of Debiganj and Haldibari into the Hindi film’s Lahore-Amritsar area at the height of Partition. Vidya Balan as Begum Jaan runs a tight ship, a boss-mother figure to all the women working under her and a pitiless tyrant to the men who dare cross her path, The influence is clearly Shyam Benegal’s Mandi. It so happens that around her prime property, there are no bloodbaths or other forms of violence even as we keep hearing about these things from other characters outside of Begum’s house.
These portions are when Mukherji does something experimental with his craft. Two government officers meet – one Muslim and one Hindu (Rajit Kapoor as Ilias and Ashish Vidhyarthi as Harshvardhan), and we notice that they’ve been family friends for long. There is a change in tone the first time they meet post the gruesome events and the atmosphere is palpable. Mukherji experiments with the way he frames or blocks his shots. He makes Ilias and Harshavardhan sit on rocks quite a distance apart and goes for a wide shot with the new partitioned land in front of them. Or when they speak about it, we see half their faces in one corner of the frame and the others’ half from the other corner. An unfortunate, poorly planned event has made once friends, half the men that they were. There is even a shot of them leaving Begum Jaan’s fort with their notice stuck to either side of the doors as the camera pans into the residents, still reeling from righteous anger.
The situation in Begum Jaan’s fort is always just short of an explosion. Years and decades of subjugation, dominance by men had made sure that reason will never enter the fort of Begum Jaan, and Begum will go to any lengths to safeguard her people from men. She treats the fort like diplomatic area where no country or authority can touch. In that sort of cold war, it is only a question of who pulls the trigger first because the end is pre-written. There is nothing even Vidya Balan can do to make things interesting here by then. And we never get to know enough about the characters to identify with their sense of loss and longing, Begum Jaan turns out to be as uneven as Cyril Radcliffe’s work in drawing of India and Pakistan’s borders.