Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Movie Review: Begum Jaan (2017)



After my explosion while looking at one of the worst made films in the history of the medium, I figure I’d just get right into today’s film and try and get back to the good stuff. Whether or not this film will actually deliver said good stuff, though, is another matter. This is Begum Jaan.


The plot: Under the “guidance” of British official Cyril Radcliffe, a line was drawn down the middle of India in 1947, separating what the West now refers to India and Pakistan. On a point where this line is about to erected is a brothel run by Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan), who rules over it as its own pseudo-micronation. However, when government officials demand that she and her workers vacate the premises, Begum Jaan makes it perfectly clear that they aren’t going to leave without a fight.

Let’s get the fundamentals out of the way first because, wow, this film has some seriously amateur mistakes peppered throughout. DOP Gopi Bhagat came up with some very strange camera ideas which all manage to bring their own unique flavours of “Um, is it supposed to look this awkward?” From the bizarre framing of the two government officials talking to each other with half of their faces cut off by the camera frame to the shockingly cheap Photoshop filter used when depicting the stories that Aunty tells the little girl who also lives at the brothel, this thing keeps taking the audience out of the moment because said moment is shot so weirdly. Oh, and let’s not forget one of the most nauseating fight scenes I’ve seen outside of a Zack Snyder film where two of the women fight in a bedroom amidst some truly painful zoom-ins. Not that Bhagat shoulders all of the blame, though, as the sound mixing is also pretty dire in places. While the playback singing has its odd moment of disconnect between the music and the person mouthing along to it, that pales in comparison to points where people are clearly talking… and literally nothing is being said. And while I’m bitching about bad ADR, the volume levels from character to character in a single scene can get pretty ridiculous, making it sound like two people in a conversation are standing about a mile away from each other even though they are sitting on the same bed.

Since the technical side of things is this off-kilter, the story better be damn good to make up for it. Thankfully, this is a narrative that has some genuine weight behind it. Framed against the beginnings of Indian independence from the British, and the ill-advised Partition, this film aims squarely at the government that would let such an action be enforced. With my not-even-novice amount of learning when it comes to Indian culture, I won’t pretend to know the finer workings of the Partition but the story sounds a little too familiar by this point. I mean, it’s not like the British are the only people to quite literally split a country down the middle. Through the depiction of ordinary citizens who are being affected by the decision, the rioting that ensued and the generally underhanded methods of the officials at play, the picture of a society in chaos echoes through even as an outsider in the audience. Add to that the religious backing to the more violent actions, highlighting the conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims along with the Pakistanis and the Indians, and you have a hefty melting pot of a premise to work with. This is especially true when put into context with the brothel, a place with no real standing in either side of the conflict and that essentially exists as its own domain with Begum as its monarch.

As for what goes on within the brothel, I can’t help but be reminded of the protectors of Old Town from Sin City in how willing and able these women are to defend themselves and their liberties. Of course, since I already made this sort of comparison back with Kaabil, I could start sounding like a broken record… well, more than usual at least. Aside from that, between the “home” under siege and the massive gunfight that the film climaxes with, this is probably closer to an old-school Western than something from the desk of Frank Miller. Probably has something to do with Vidya Balan’s performance, as she exudes such raw power and authority that, even considering she spends a lot of on-screen time with a hookah in her mouth, I would be legitimately frightened of on the other side of the screen. Now, the depiction of sex workers is rarely if ever done with the idea of power in mind; hell, last time I saw this was in The Man With The Iron Fists and I can count the people I know who remember that on Captain Hook’s bad hand. However, here it’s shown with that kind of second-wave feminist spark that makes for some pretty liberating moments. There’s a lot of in-fighting that goes on and some pretty deep-seated conflicts do spring up but, in the face of the frequently shifty and two-faced men that try to get in their way, there’s definite strength to be found in all of them.

In addition to the film’s stance of sex-positivity when it comes to the working girls, there’s also something to be said of how this and the larger geographical conflict come together. The country (or, rather, countries thanks to the Partition) is on the brink of anarchy, riots pour through the streets and the men behind all of it show themselves of being more than capable of excusing their own awful, awful deeds. Meanwhile, stuck in many ways between two opposing forces, the brothel is all that these women have. Throughout the film, as mentioned above, the old Aunty tells stories of heroic and historic Indian women who defied the wiles of men and carved out their own place in history. While I maintain that they aren’t presented in the most visually literate of ways, the stories end up wrapping around Begum and those under her care to distill this story of national upheaval and bureaucratic malice into one of pure feminine strength. Considering how the story itself feels like it’s being stretched to hit the usual Bollywood running time requirements (and bear in mind that this is a remake that is shorter than the Bengali original), it can often feel like little is going on between the cracks. This isn’t helped by the general shoddy nature of the production itself. But even still, the imagery that bursts onto the screen in the final reel is among the most powerful I’ve seen so far this year. It may be a bit cheesy and not exactly the sort of sentiment that I would advise elsewhere, but in showing true independence of will in a conflict meant to split cultures, families and even individuals apart, this is simply gorgeous.

All in all, this has some very clear and definite problems, most of which stem from the frankly confounding creative decisions made behind the camera. However, in the words of my biggest critical influence: “Even a badly-worded statement can inspire.” And true enough, through Vidya Balan’s uber-dominant presence and some truly striking imagery connecting to feminine resilience, this wonky production does indeed inspire. Considering this is a remake to a film that’s not even three years old yet, I’m willing to chalk up this film’s faults to diminishing returns, but all the same, this is a worthy watch. It’s better than Fences, as the message at its core is a lot more potent and, even with how wonky the production is, this still looks like an actual film rather than just filmed outdoor theatre. However, on that same note of production values, this falls short of the eye-popping grandeur put into The Great Wall.

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