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
DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights
The problem with a class of Bengalis is the blatant intellectual snobbery, the condescending attitude that they know more than the rest, that they are superior. Clearly they have not heard how knowledge brings with it a sense of humility. These select few are so accustomed to living in their bubble of ‘know-it-all’ that they sacrifice their creative side at the alter of ego. This exactly is the case with the writer of a review of the film ‘Rajkahini’ on a website called ‘Bangla Live’.
Criticism is always healthy but to tom-tom a ‘holier-than-thou’ air and scathingly pour out “emotions” for having watched the film sitting on the stairs of the theatre is taking things a bit too far. A not-very-fine line separates the personal from professional, the Bangla Live review was much of the former; it was evident.
In the very beginning the writer makes the assumption that most viewers of the film may not be very “knowledgeable” and only few “learned” people (like him, of course) would be privy to the fact that the opening sequence of the film was “ripped off” from a Manto story. Clearly, he does not have the patience to read the opening credits where the director clearly outlined the sequence was an adaptation of “Khol Do”. In fact, Manto’s name figured in the list of acknowledgements too.
He also has a problem with the portrayal of the prostitutes. Too elitist and classy, he thinks. Of course, why not. Brothels have to be like Sonagachhi – delinquent, dark, dingy, dirty. How dare a lady who was raised in Bengal and became a kothewali in Lucknow speak Urdu interspersed with Bangla (with north Indian accent)? How can a prostitute trained in Lucknow have class? How dare prostitutes have fair skin?!
The third problem the knowledgeable reviewer had with the film was the overt depiction of sexuality. Clearly, Srijit Mukherjee is at fault here. How dare Mr Director think that he can depict the sexual desires of women? Women can NOT have any desire. They must only serve. That too prostitutes? How dare they. They must only sell their bodies in lieu of money. Women do NOT masturbate; it is the fiefdom of men. To even suggest they do is sacrilege.
Might I add here the bone of contention – lesbian relationship. Even another friend of mine said it was useless sub-plot that was left in the cold. While I agree the relationship had enormous scope, it was not justified on screen. But useless? No. This film is all about people in minority. Fringe. ‘Prantik manush’ as I understand it. The lesbian love is symbolic. People of all castes, creed, sexuality were affected by partition and everyone’s story needed to be told.
Then there was reference to a scene (which was one of my favourites in the film) between Zoya Ahsan and Rudranil Ghosh. He thought it was useless sexualisation of women. I thought it was oft-told tragedy of women with a touch of empathy. There lies difference of opinion. Despite having limited knowledge of film craft, I loved the sequence for its camera angles, use of colours, the setting and above all the heart-wrenching performances.
The reviewer also wondered why Rudranil’s cremation was shot on a huge rock in the middle of the river, so away from the kotha… Agree. But then, what if Rubina wanted Sujan’s last rites to be held at the spot where they spent many afternoons in each other’s company?
Having said that, the knowledgeable reviewer did point out some minor inconsistencies. Like the setting. Haldibari is not arid and neither does it have hillocks as shown in the film. But to discredit an entire narrative for this flaw? I would not do so. There was no continuity in the scenes between Mountbatten and Radcliffe. But then again, these are minor aberrations – highlighting these would be missing the larger picture.
The chase sequence at the butcher market also raised eyebrows. Why were carcasses and goat meat hanging in the middle of night in a closed market? I had the same question. The most logical explanation to me was they were metaphorical to make the tragedy that was about to unfold even more gruesome! In a way those carcasses depict how mercilessly butchers slice innocent animals, just like Kabir was about to do with Sujan.
Finally the burning question – how a bunch of prostitutes who were the champions of feminism throughout the film decided to perform Jauhar in the end. I was perplexed. The look on Begum Jaan’s face as she shut the door of the kotha was that of pride and victory. Feminism had won. Where is the paradox? Begum Jaan or her girls did not surrender to the enemy. They breathed their last in the very house they fought for. Again, Aban Thakur’s Rajkahini was a metaphor here. What perturbed me was that Thamma was alive and well to read passages from a book as fire raged on. But then, cinema is all about taking liberties.
In the end, my humble submission to everyone who reads this piece would be to learn more about film craft, definitely. Yours truly himself loves reading. But never let your knowledge get the better of you. Debate, discuss, deliberate. Never condescend. Comprehend, instead. Filmmaking after all is a director’s personal art. You may have different ideas but that does not necessitate spewing canards.
Thus, when the reviewer on Bangla Live contends Rajkahini is Srijit Mukherjee’s “nikrishto tomo” film, I object. In terms of scope, subject, writing and overall performances, the growth of Srijit Da as a director was evident. A film of this scale needed to be made in Bengal. This story needed to be told.