A few days ago, I saw the Indian film, Begum Jaan. A remake of a Bengali film, this Vidya Balan movie did not do well when it was released a year ago. Most critics tried to see a ‘feminist narrative’ in the film, but were disappointed that the motley of women in Begum Jaan’s ‘kotha’ in 1947 did not live up to their expectations. Others were troubled by the unibrow of Balan but the perfectly plucked eye brows of the other women, and wondered which salon these women went to in 1947. Still some were concerned why after a rain shower, the women in the Kotha were all dry, as one is always supposed to sing, dance and get wet with every downpour. Stuck in either some theoretical construct or some insignificant detail, most reviewers failed to actually see the film.
Begum Jaan does not tick all the boxes in cinematography, and at times it does not completely make sense. Set in the summer of 1947, there is a moment where the women in the brothel celebrate Holi, which of course would have been just under a year away — Diwali, which came in late October, might have been a better choice. Also, one twist in the plot of the introduction of a local thug jointly by Indian and Pakistani officials is a bit bizarre. There are also instances of overacting, bad dialogue, and other issues. But then, is it possible to see the film in a different light?
Reading the various reviews which trashed the film, obsessed over minor flaws, and harkened back to other similar films like Mandi, I wondered if something more than just a negative review was a foot here. Could it be that deep within this dismissal of the film was the, still lingering, uneasiness with the partition of India? Was it that the criticism of the ‘form’ of the film was in fact refusal to deal with the events of 1947 which—for a large number of people—were actually the turning of the world upside down? Does the box office failure of the film exhibit that people in South Asia do not want to see that we perhaps still live in the partition moment? All these questions are important to ponder.
The sheer fact that the film was not even seen by the Pakistan Censor Board, let alone allowed to screen in the country, shows the deep anxieties of the state towards anything relating to the partition of British India. The official reason given to the films producer Mahesh Bhatt was that Pakistan doesn’t import film on the partition, spoke volumes of how the state is trying to control and shape the narrative of partition, and even an imagined story of an imaging brothel cannot be allowed to feature.
On the Indian side, it was interesting to note that the film did not do well at the box office. Perhaps it was the bad reviews, and maybe the film itself, but it could have been the fact that it is increasingly clear that India has now come full circle from those harrowing days of 1947. The amount of violence against the ‘other’, be it a Muslim Indian, a Christian Indian, or even an Indian woman, is increasingly becoming so mundane in the country, that it seems that nothing has changed since 1947.
The fact that there were no heroes in the film—no Muslim heroes, no Hindu heroes, just the prostitutes who burnt themselves alive, not because they wanted to ‘protect’ their honour by committing ‘Jauhar,’ but simply because they wanted to live and die in their ‘home’. This absence of a ‘higher’ cause, be that of honour or feminism or anything else, was what irked the critics the most, but which, in my opinion, was the great strength of the film.
Making little comment on the usual questions of who was right and wrong, showing either Indians or Pakistanis in good or bad light, or highlighting the massacres and massive displacement of the time, this film focused on just one thing: home. The decade or so of prostitutes did not care about what was happening between the British, Indians and Pakistanis, they did not care about anything except their home, their ‘watan’. It is this singular theme which runs throughout the film and keeps it together.
The great lengths to which these women go to protect their home, from eliciting the help of a Raja who himself is on the verge of losing power, to learning how to use old rifles in order to protect themselves, the women doggedly protect their own turf. Thus, it became clear how the Radcliffe line, that one cartographic endeavour wholly conducted by lawyers, changed reality for everyone. It is the graveness of the change—everything changes for these women, and yet the silliness of the action—Begum Jaan openly makes fun of the line, upon which the saliency of this film rests.
Seventy-one years have passed since the events of 1947, and both Pakistan and India have just celebrated their birth anniversary. Yet rather than distance being developed between the events of that hot summer and today, both countries resemble their inception moment now more than any other time. The cycle of violence, religious, ethnic, gender based, still continues unabated, hate is again legitimate, and human life has again lost its value. Perhaps it would be better for both countries to one day just remember their past, and not become mirror images of it in the present.