Begum Jaan is a strong take on the patriarchal order but with a narrative that slips in and out of control.
Begum Jaan has a powerful backdrop, and while it is set immediately post-Independence, the theme finds great resonance in today's times.
Director Srijit Mukherji, who had a winner in the original Bengali version, had two big referral points to go by - Shyam Benegal's Mandi and Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala. Both are classics in their own right and had some power-packed performances by Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil.
It is to their league then that Vidya Balan's Begum Jaan must rise, and that indeed is what makes this film interesting.
As the brothel-keeper who faces eviction following the Partition, Vidya Balan is all fire and in full form, no doubt. She adopts that totally unrestrained body language and her rage against the men and servitude to the king are all fantastic setpieces of acting in modern cinema.
Yet, if the role fails to satisfy, awe you and move you as Smita and Shabana so well did in their movies, the blame lies more in the narrative framework of the film that simply slips in and out of control.
While it is not historic anecdotes that have Vidya Balan in the guise of anyone from Rani Laxmibhai to Razia Sultan, it resembles a theatre - with characters even resorting to tableaux mode. At other times, it aspires to become a statement on the Partition itself and how the big deep division on the lines of religion went on to divide people who were happily co-existing without regard for any differences.
It is the attempt of Srijit Mukherji to attempt too much at one go, using narrative props that are not too original that makes Begum Jaan often a tedious watch. The fundamental premise of the brothel - with all its bickering, love-hate relationships, and the 'hidden child' oscillates as the director pans into the world of the two government officials - Srivastava (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilyas (Rajat Kapoor), who are tasked with evicting Begum Jaan.
There are also the side stories of love and deceit within the brothel, and their positioning in the film are not just abrupt but also appear forced. It is when Kabir (Chunky Pandey), as a ruthless killer, enters the fray that the story and the film lift and come to life.
For all practical purposes then, it is Chunky's restrained performance that you are probably going to remember because Vidya Balan, after all, cannot go wrong. Begum Jaan is one of her great performances, no doubt, and she delivers it knock-out, especially in her scenes with Naseeruddin Shah, as the king,.
Begum Jaan is very dialogue-oriented, and while that is no fault, the preachy and obvious effort to prove a point, suits drama rather than cinema.
A period film that brilliantly finds references to the contemporary world, Begum Jaan is a slap in the face of the patriarchal order. The women empowerment message is loud and clear, and the sub-texts are all pitch-perfect to make for a grand statement on women abuse.
But as a film, a little more control on the meandering could have made Begum Jaan another classic; for now, it still remains theatrical than impactful.
Directed by Srijit Mukherji
Starring: Vidya Balan, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Chunky Pandey
Now showing at theatres in the UAE