A national award winning director decides to do a Hindi remake of his Bengali period film, which was a huge critical and a commercial success; so he teams up with Bollywood’s major production house and hires a much acclaimed talented actress to essay the title role. On paper, this looks like a pretty good recipe for a watchable film. So how does writer-director Srijit Mukherji’s Bengali film Rajkahini translate into Mahesh-Mukesh Bhatt plus Vidya Balan’s Bollywood combine Begum Jaan?
What’s the plot?
In a secluded mansion between two neighboring Punjab towns lies Begum Jaan’s brothel. The famed madam (Vidya Balan) is a tough cookie, who handles her ‘girls’ with iron hand when it comes to ‘work ethic’ but who also takes good care of them. The world’s oldest profession is doing well and with the local king’s (Naseeruddin Shah) open support, Begum Jaan has become a law unto herself in her territory.
The times are changing though. Independence and Partition are around the corner. Punjab is all set to be divided by an arbitrary Radcliff line into two parts- one for India and one for Pakistan. Begum Jaan’s mansion inadvertently becomes the controversial flash point in the Indo-Pak border-marking. By a cruel hand of fate, the brothel’s one half is set to be in India and the other in Pakistan. The place is marked to be a border check-post. The supervising Indo-Pak officials (Ashish Vidyarthi and Rajit Kapoor) and a local well-wisher teacher (Vivek Mushran) warn the madam to vacate the mansion but she refuses outright. When negotiations fail to convince the adamant lady, the time-pressed officials decide to collude with a local henchman (Chunky Pande) to permanently remove this nagging obstacle in the marking of the Indo-Pak border!
· An interesting story where history, human tragedies, moral weaknesses and social contradictions provide multiple layers to characters and events.
· Vidya Balan delivers a convincing performance of a madam who would go to any lengths to protect her world lying within the four walls of the brothel!
· The veteran actors- Naseeruddin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi, Rajit Kapoor, Vivek Mushran and Chunky Pande do good jobs.
· The period feel is well-depicted.
· The music is nice.
· Srijit Mukherji’s storytelling as a director lacks finesse and assumes irritatingly loud tones at times. As a result the characters and the proceedings leave you unmoved.
· The actresses playing the characters of prostitutes don’t leave a mark.
· The photography seems out of focus in some scenes. (Or was it on our theatre screen only?)
· The grainy flashbacks of historic and mythical stories woven into the main plot don’t look good.
After reading rave reviews about the original Bengali film, it seems that somehow the writer-director has lost his way in this Hindi adaptation. The Bengal to Punjab transformation and the broad melodramatic Bollywood approach seem to have killed the film’s spontaneity and emotional appeal. Despite an interesting story and Vidya Balan’s (and a few others’!) good performances, Begum Jaan doesn’t touch the heart or satisfy the brain. It definitely had the potential to be a fine film but ultimately got lost in translation!