Bombastic, but bold and beautiful
Srijit Mukherji’s Bangla period film Rajkahini (2015), that this one is the exact replica of, was slightly refreshing, mainly because it was set during 1947 Partition, yes, but on the eastern front, where East Pakistan was being separated from West Bengal, Assam. Normally, Partition narratives get placed in the North, mainly Punjab. As is this adaptation, by the way. Except you don’t hear as much Punjabi here.
The characters belong to multiple ethnicities, regions. The setting is a brothel. And isn’t it true what they say (and this film does as well) about whores having no religion, caste, or nationality. Her clients don’t discriminate against her along such narrow lines either. One such prostitute, or rather the head of a whorehouse, is Begum Jaan.
The line threatening her identity is bizarrely enough the Radcliffe Line, named after an unsuspecting British lawyer with poor eye-sight who was brought to the sub-continent to divide India and Pakistan, displace 14 million people, in four weeks flat, through near arbitrary doodles on a map of a country that he had never been to before. Ram Madhvani, incidentally, has made a fine, somber short film on Cyril Radcliffe at old age, that is worth viewing online.
This picture, though slightly low-budget, is more over-the-top, or bombastic, driven to much melodrama, in the interest of grabbing attention, and popular entertainment, as it were. The appropriate euphemism is more ‘mainstream’. Vidya Balan plays Begum Jaan whose kotha falls on the new Indo-Pak border being demarcated by reps from either side (Ashish Vidyarthi, Rajit Kapoor).
The kotha must go, right away—to make way for India and Pakistan. It’s pretty ballsy for Balan to pick up a part like Begum’s, although on the face of it, she seems far too soft and feminine to pull of this rugged character, who’s foul-mouthed, cynical, suppressed, confident, and very much the head of an independent republic herself.
She has the local king’s (Naseeruddin Shah) patronage; her own fine Pathan guard (Sumit Nijhawan) at the door; connections with the high and mighty of the area, since they’re inevitably her clients. And she treats the women in the whorehouse like a queen would her subject, or a mother would her daughters. The film does well to humanise the prostitute. It is very ‘Manto’ that way. Or in many other ways, actually.
For one, reference to Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, based on a mental asylum during Partition, which falls both in India and Pakistan, or neither, would be a legit inspiration for Srjit Mukherji’s script. The sub-text is rather important, if not even more relevant. Which is quite simply that when the world chooses to divide itself in hoards—Left, Right; India, Pakistan; Hindu, Muslim—what happens to the muted, neutral, centrist? What to do with those who’re neither here nor there? You see this play out daily in this nation’s discourse, that’s only getting coarser by the day, with those not in the ring, gawking quietly at the absurdity of it all, starting with hashtags on Twitter.
Begum Jaan’s women, who sell split-second love for a living, are forced to take up guns, to protect themselves from both India and Pakistan. Partition (1947) itself is a subject Hindi cinema largely shied away from, up until Garam Hawa (1974). In 2016, Ketan Mehta had made a wonderful short film with Pankaj Kapur as Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. It was part of an Indo-Pak peace initiative. The project was laid to rest later last year, because that Radcliffe Line continues to divide our small hearts and minds.
The irony was lost on no one. I’m glad this effective film, on the same subject, is out in Indian theatres for audiences to sit (if not take a stand), and ponder over. In the words of Sahir, used well in this beautiful picture, ‘Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi.”