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Vidya Balan’s Hooker With A Hookah  Is No Shabana Azmi But  Begum Jaan Is An Experience: Movie Review

Starring: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah,Gauhar Khan,Mishti, Pallavi Sharda, PritobashTripathy, Chunky Pandey

Written & Directed by: Srijit Mukherjee

This is no Mandi. Damn, it is not even anywhere near the raw guttural emotionalism ofMadhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar.

But Begum Jaan holds together very ably to the end, thanks to writer-director SrijitMukherjee’s confident hold over his characters’ doomed destiny as they journey from deflowering to destruction with a raging fire in their whorish hearts.

These are women whom time or the tides of men cannot defeat. They are strong and they use their sexuality to survive. Srijit has cast sensibly for  each of the sex workers in this ‘period’ drama(Vidya Balan drawls about menstruation with a kind of medieval glee that actress Nadira expressed in  Mud mud keh na dekh in Sri 420).

I am not if these actresses match up to their memorable peers in the Bengali versionRajkahini.

In fact this is a good a place as any to mention that Rituparna Sengupta’s central performance in Rajkahini as the Madame of the endangered brothel was far more jolting than Vidya Balan.

Balan fakes it from the word go. From the hookah that she insists on snorting to her periodic  outbursts of anger and laughter, it’s all a ‘come-watch-me-do-a-National-award’ act.  Her diction, a delight in other circumstances, is here an embarrassing reminder of Balan’s urbane personality being superimposed on a character who survives by her intuitive  cunning.

In a sequence like the one where she slaps a stuporous rape victim(Mishti, Subhash Ghai’s heroine in Kaanchi )  into a state of emotional eruption, Balan is so keen to impress us with her  range that  she behaves like a singer who has newly learnt the ragas and wants to squeeze them all into one song.

Besides Balan’s ineffectual hooker with a hookah act, the other girls specially playing sex workers seem to have a  lot fun with their parts when the writer-director is not looking. SrijitMukherjee, that remarkable auteur director from Bengali cinema, is hellbent on taking the brothel of  sex workers through a historic journey into India’s partition.It’s like pressing textbooks into the hands of a bunch of safari adventurers.

The allegory of a brothel perched precariously on No Man’s Land(if you read  that carefully you would encounter a delicious sex-pun on the relationship between the political manoeuvring and the male phallus) is hammered with  ferocious dramatic devices like thunderous background music and seismic camera angles.The impact of the ‘ribaldry during times of Partition’ theme is  completely submerged in lengthy lectures on the politics of sex and communalism .

A lot of what has gone  into this brutal and stark  film is meant to shock. The sexual references spotlighting women as objects of lust will repel the audience, as they are intended to. Though this  is a film about gorgeous women and sex, it is not the least enticing  or seductive. The mood is grim, often stubbornly so. At times the excessive zeal to stun and repel are stomach churning.You wait for Srijit to let his characters loosen up, lighten the load of history and sex that they carry on their shoulders. But there is no respite from the burden of being brutally bartered by power brokers.

Barring Pratibosh Tripathy gentle pimp’s act(he will remind you of Naseeruddin Shah  inMandi) the male species  in Begum Jaan are slippery treacherous and self-important, none more so than Chunkey  Pandey as a coldblooded killer. As a man  who kills without creed or conscience , Chunky Pandey plays one of  the most despicable villains seen in our cinema. If you’ve seen Jisshu Sengupta in the Bengali original you would find Pandey’s performance lagging and lacking.If not, you will be chilled to your bones watching this funnyman do aflipflop.

Vivek Mushran(remember  him?) does an  image volte face as a treacherous teacher whosefaçade of idealism crumbles in the face of  a selfserving greed, while Naseeruddin Shah as a royalty who likes kinky cruel sex with girls old enough to  be his daughter and  cold enough to be his slaughter, seems very little interested in the sex that his character enjoys.

The sexual tension between Naseer and Balan was far more interesting in Ishqiya. Here it crumbles under the weight of carrying too much history on its shoulders. Begum Jaan is  a film with some remarkable writing . But the political proceedings in the background are never allowed to be forgotten.It is like  constantly ringing sound that breaks into a session of sex and intrigue.

In creating a world where women rule the roost, the film misses the wood for the trees. Or sex for the sleaze.