I had rated Rajkahini on my blog 4/5 stars – the film had moved me, left me in tears as the end credits rolled. So, when I walked into the theatre today to watch Begum Jaan, there was trepidation in my heart. It was almost like I’d be tested as an audience to what extent I can separate the Rajkahini experience from Begum Jaan. Might I say, Srijit Mukherjee made it very easy because the first sequence itself was starkly different from the theatrical adaptation of Manto’s work that Rajkahini began with. I was at ease and for the next 130 odd minutes became a part of the kotha on Indo-Pak border that fought independence for freedom.
While Rajkahini was set in Bengal, Begum Jaan is based in Punjab. Abanindranath Thakur’s Rajkahini played a significant role in the film, specially in the end; here Ila Arun’s character tells stories of feisty daughters of India (which were cleverly depicted by Vidya in the film). While the basic premise of the film remained the same as Rajkahini, there were many changes to the script – some good, some bad. The Connaught Place sequence was a fitting addition to the film. The additional scene between Gulabo-Rubina was emotive. Several characters have been given a closure in the end, another creative input.
Vidya Balan – my favourite actress for the last decade and a half – was originally approached for Rajkahini. I always wondered how different the film would’ve been with her (Rituparna Sengupta gave her career best performance as Begum Jaan, so no comparisons). She steals the show with her bold, gritted, fiery portrayal of the brothel owner who would go to any extent to save her vatan, her kotha.
Rubina (wonderfully portrayed by Joya Ehsan) was my favourite character from Rajkahini who had the most beautiful scene ever written in Bengali cinema in recent times. Gauhar Khan has done justice to the part. Also, the great Naseeruddin Shah gave gravity to a role which was oft not remembered from Rajkahini.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the supporting cast. The sense of loss and vengeance was missing from Ilias and Srivastava. Even some scenes where half their faces were shown did not aesthetically look as good as they did with Saswata-Kaushik. Their chemistry was somehow lacking. Gulabo was expressionless when confronted with the ultimate betrayal. Chunkey Pandey as Kabir was menacing enough but did not evoke the same horror and hate as Jishu Sengupta did in Rajkahini.
I felt the narrative moved a bit fast, so we could not connect to these characters in totality. The Holi song was completely out of place and the background score did not do justice to several great scenes – like the manhunt in the butchers’ market. However, the climax choked me as usual. ‘Woh subah hum hee se ayegi’ was a great substitute for ‘Bharat Bhagyo Bidhata’ and the visuals would simply stupefy you into a state of forbearance.
And above all, the last visual you take home with you as you walk out after Begum Jaan – that look on Vidya’s face when she closes the door of the kotha, that look of victory but the sense of loss, juxtaposed with the fluttering of the tricolour, will even make a heart of stone let the tears flow.
I had always wondered how would a sequel of Rajkahini be with Buchki (Laadli) in the lead. Begum Jaan has given us a glimpse of it. Begum Jaan and Rajkahini are two different films, for two different audiences. Comparisons would not be fair. Both shine in their own right.
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
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Adaptation (noun) is a film, television drama, or stage play that has been adapted from a written work. Since art is subjective and personal, written words get a new meaning in the new medium. While the central theme remains intact, the setting and interpretation infuse new life to the text. Thus, Romeo and Juliet become warlords in a remote village of Gujarat or Hamlet turns up as a misguided freedom fighter in Kashmir.
In Srijit Mukherjee’s Zulfiqar, we get a slice of Rome in the dock area of Kolkata; Senate turns into Syndicate and Caesar falls not because Brutus loved Rome more but because Bashir Khan prided himself for being a ‘desh bhakt’.
Recreating a play that was staged in Europe in the sixteenth century in the context of socio-economic politics of a miniscule region of a metropolis is no mean feat and Srijit Mukherjee passes with flying colours – Zulfiqar (Caesar) is the Robin Hood-esque leader of the dock area; his growing popularity is a cause of concern for the syndicate. Kashinath (Cassius), a don turned promoter, hatches a plan to cut Zulfiqar to size. But without Brutus (Bashir)’s support the plan cannot materialise. Hence the Conspirators appeal to Bashir’s patriotism (with forged documentation and hacked emails), forcing the ‘honourable man’ to betray his friend.
Zulfiqar’s death is avenged by his trusted lieutenants Marcus and Tony (an intelligent digression from the original text; while Marcus is a fighter who is romantic at heart, Tony is the man who manages the finances of the Syndicate. Clearly, Srijit Mukherjee chose to distinguish between Mark Antony, the scheming worrior whose loyalty we witness in Julius Caesar, from the Antony who falls in love with Cleopatra). The Triumvirate of Akhtar (Octavius), Laltu Das (Lepidus, a corrupt policeman in the film) and Marcus-Tony take down the conspirators. However, the greed for power, naked ambition and distrust bring down the Triumvirate too as Akhtar establishes his control over the syndicate business.
Little nuances throughout the film embolden the reason why Srijit Mukherjee is considered one of the few intelligent filmmakers in Bengal. Queen Cleopatra (Rani Tolapatra)’s Egypt becomes ‘Blue Nile’ bar in the film. To give credence to Calpurnia (Karishma)’s premonitions, she is established as a drug addict with agrophobia. While Shakespeare used long monologues to establish Brutus’s love for Rome, Srijit Da introduced a sub-plot of terrorists seeking safe haven in the area ruled by syndicate.
The scene where Caesar’s ghost appears before Brutus is one of the masterpieces in cinema – the tranquil waters of Rangit (resembling deceased Zulfiqar’s state of mind) stand a stark contrast to the turbulent waters of Teesta (portraying the conflict within Bashir’s mind). The beautiful locale of Triveni (one of my favourite spots in north Bengal) only add to the visual opulence.
Obviously, the film has its flaws. The flawless Bengali diction of predominantly Hindi speaking characters come across as strange in some scenes. Also, why would a mob in a Hindi/Urdu speaking area get incensed by a speech made in predominantly English (interspersed with broken Hindi)? Julius Caesar stands out for Mark Antony’s speech in Act III; the one in the film, though impassioned, lacked punch.
The reason why Zulfiqar will be a cult film in Bengali film history is because a genre of cinema is born in this part of the world. Underworld and gang wars had hitherto been unexplored in Bengali cinema and we finally have a mainstream movie that has taken gangsters beyond the mindless pot-bellied villains with horrific hair who are beaten black and blue by the angelic heroes. In fact, Srijit Da has written the scenes as if he were staging the play on silver screen; this really is a fresh approach to telling a story.
Srijit Mukherjee has in the past redefined actors in his films. From Prosenjit (Autograph) to Rituparna Sengupta (Rajkahini) we have seen how mainstream actors broke free from their moulds to essay characters that will forever be etched in the minds of viewers. Zulfiqar gives us Dev and Ankush. Dev has silenced all his critics and trolls with his portrayal of Marcus. The feeling of angst, betrayal, failed love and jealousy in his eyes in his last scene was so intense, only a seasoned actor could have pulled it off. Ankush effortlessly transforms from the soft lover-boy who loves his music to the ambitious heir who not only seeks revenge for the death of his uncle but finishes off all his competitors without even batting an eyelid.
Jishu Sengupta as Kashinath kept reminding me of Maganalal Meghraj from Joy Baba Felunath. Only an actor of calibre can deliver a performance so monstrous! Kaushik Sen surprises in his avatar of tragic hero Bashir. Paoli Dam remains unexplored as Karishma (but I guess the scope of her character was limited). Nusrat adds the oomph as Rani Tolapatra (while succinctly displaying her inner conflict as she remains undecided till the end whether to choose love or social security; her suicide was also cleverly conceived).
Music has always been an important pillar of Srijit Mukherjee’s films and he does not disappoint in Zulfiqar either. The background score by Indraadip Dasgupta fitted the bill. Anupam Roy’s compositions were soothing as usual. Only one romantic track in the second half felt out of place in the narrative. Nachiketa’s haunting voice will keep you seated in the theatre till the last letter of the end credits fade from screen.
To sum up, when you are adapting a story that has been told many times, it is the freshness of storytelling that matters. That is why Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara clicks while Aparna Sen’s Arshinagar fizzes out. Srijit Mukherjee made Shakespeare’s play his own, and there he stands out in the crowd.
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
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