Honestly I am not too keen to write a detailed review of these films as I have something much more important to share triggered by the films only, (both) written and directed by Srijit Mukherji, amalgamating some classic works of the past by the renowned maestros. At least for me its extremely important to share and convey particularly to my young passionate readers in their teens or early 20s or 30s.
But keeping that important share for the last, for friends willing to read the key points of a routine review, here is the description as well as a comparison that will clearly give you the picture as desired.
Firstly Srijit truly deserves appreciation for writing a story putting together the classic works of the maestros in an intriguing form rarely attempted before in our Indian cinema. Though the execution becomes the victim of its own gigantic attempt raising the expectations, still I would like to praise the effort thinking beyond the usual norms of adapting only one story at a time or a film in the routine manner.
Giving you the reference of all the major works Srijit takes his praiseworthy inspiration from, he begins from a brothel taking you back in the year 47, strongly reminding you of the premise of Shyam Benegal’s MANDI and its superfine cast ensemble. After the initial 35-40 minutes, he incorporates the basic highly thought provoking idea taken from Saadat Hassan Manto’s famous short story titled TOBA TEK SINGH pointing towards the line of partition drawn by a hurriedly appointed officer by the Britishers. In a few sequences he takes his references from the works of Manto’s contemporary ISMAT CHUGTAI and then leads towards the final hour highly inspired/influenced by Ketan Mehta’s classic MIRCH MASALA.
Having summed up the story structure giving you a fair idea, following are the short reviews of both the films before I move on to the most important share in the concluding section.
BEGUM JAAN (Hindi) – As an individual film, it can easily be stated as a madly overstuffed venture with too many bold scenes added just to surprise or impress the viewers through a questionable shock-technique. However in the process the earlier worth contemplating scenes get brutally affected by the newer ones and the viewer just keeps on watching without getting time to give a serious thought on any one particular scene.
Yes, the key bold sequences and dialogues at times leave you stunned unexpected from the faces on screen. But they together do not generate any collective effect you can take back home, becoming the biggest shortcoming of the film unable to convey its well-intentioned important social message. The second half makes a much better impression moving ahead of the first but the prolonged directionless climax fails to lift up the spirits which ideally should have been the main highlight of the film as per the chosen format.
Everything seems to be too over-dramatic, quite desperate to make an impact including the key acts. In short a hidden wish and a forced attempt to ‘construct a classic’ is simply visible in its almost every sequence, which adversely affects the otherwise sincere and bold performances of Vidya Balan, followed by Pitobash, Gauhar Khan and Pallavi Sharda (though their awfully bad Punjabi accent plays a big spoilsport). Seasoned actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapur and Ashish Vidyarthi remain plain ordinary in their respective scenes, whereas Ila Arun, Rajesh Sharma, Vivek Mushran, Sumit Nijhawan and other supporting girls fail to stand out in absence of any significant scene. In fact, Ila Arun’s narration of the various historical stories does not gel at all and looks completely out of place inserted abruptly.
Unexpectedly the most natural act in the film comes from Chunky Pandey playing the evil man and other notable merit is its music which actually works more as an individual soundtrack in comparison to what you get to hear and see on the screen. Cinematography and Art direction keeps trying to give it an authentic period feel (with some unusual angles) and background score turns out to be too loud in most of the sequences lacking the required feel.
In all, ending with an appreciable rendition of Sahir’s “Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi” BEGUM JAAN simply gives you the feeling of a well-amalgamated plot sadly getting lost in the shouts, shrieks and forced aggressive dialogues rendered by the ladies together. Projected as a venture with some kind of lifetime performance given by Vidya Balan, the film actually doesn’t allow her to leave any major impact at all due to its own shortcomings.
Rating : 2 / 5
RAJKAHINI (Bengali) – As the original film from the same writer-director, I did find RAJKAHINI a lot better in execution but not any classic film to be honest respecting the noble intentions. The film loses the sarcasm behind its basic plot of ‘line of partition’ in the other over-crowded sub-plots and characters and doesn’t turn out to be as effective as the classics it takes its references from. Having a longer duration RAJKAHINI gives more breathing space to its characters and sequences without any visible rush and thus is able to make a decent impact on the viewers despite many major flaws.
Incorporating a brutally shocking story of Saadat Hassan Manto in the very beginning, its strongest merit remains the portrayal of Begum Jaan by Rituparna, who manages to create a different aura through her rough, don-like act, though I wish she had not used the gimmick of a hoarse voice (reminding you of another failed attempt to do the same by Amitabh Bachchan in his AGNEEPATH).
The music works perfectly in the film and so does the background score used effectively in the key explosive sequences. Plus the evil contract-killer addition works well in its second half delivering the missing required thrills in the initial hour. However, neither the character of ‘master’ nor the inclusion of Radcliffe works in its favour, particularly when the director strangely brings in a Bengali actor to play a British officer coming to India for the first time.
At times the film appears more like a stage presentation with only a few people used to portray the refugee camps, migration, riots, killings and more, which truly does not justify the representation of a country’s partition. Moreover with some compromising graphics and a visionless depiction (read aimless firing) in its climax, RAJKAHINI fails to create the much desired tension filled crescendo, leaving you with a feeling of having seen something well-tried without reaching the level of an epic or classic.
Rating : 3 / 5
Apart from using the similar set and location, interestingly the writer-director uses the same footage of his Bengali film in the few sequences of his Hindi remake too (if I am not wrong) as there are no close-ups or recognizable artists visible in them showcasing the refugee camps, migrating people and more in mostly long shots.
BEGUM JAAN begins with a brutally shocking night sequence (of the present) shot at Delhi’s Connaught Place wherein a young couple gets saved by an old lady. And then the director appreciably connects the old lady to one of the impressive climax sequences happening back in 47-48 leaving you in a stunning thinking mode. On the other hand RAJKAHINI begins differently with a fine adaptation of one of the most unkind and harshest short story of Saadat Hassan Manto titled KHOL DO. And then the writer takes forward the story linking it to Begum Jaan’s brothel in the very next scene in a thoughtfully related manner.
As a Hindi film, where BEGUM JAAN ends with Sahir's well written “Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi” pointing towards the never dying hope, the Bengali original ends with a version of “Jan Gan Man” on a similar introspective note catering its regional audience.
In the performances, Rituparna scores more as Begum Jaan with the only drawback being her deliberate voice texture tried, actually taking the act far away from anything natural or realistic. However Vidya Balan’s sincere act keeps struggling to get out of the loud, forced dialogues with intentionally added abuses presenting it in a highly over-dramatic tone throughout. To give you an idea, when you are openly running a brothel and playing its outspoken owner then why to keep reminding the visitors about the same as if they don’t know where they are standing and for what purpose?
Where the supporting acts of the girls decently works in the original in absence of any Punjabi dialogues, both Gauhar and Pallavi keep annoying with their awful Punjabi accent, never taken care of by the director, because he himself might not be knowing the right pronunciation of many specific words. Here I would humbly like to raise a question that when all the actors and their directors duly want the Urdu diction in the dialogues to be just perfect without any major mistakes then why don’t they follow the same process and learning while using the Punjabi dialogues? Or is it the case that they think Punjabi is a too casual language that can be used anywhere in any manner without looking into the specific details of accent and the right pronunciation?
Correcting his mistake of casting a Bengali actor in the role of the British officer Radcliffe in RAJKAHINI, Srijit uses a voice over of Amitabh Bachchan explaining the situation in his Hindi remake and cuts off all the political sequences and dialogues largely diluting the impact of its beginning jumping straight to the point.
Experimenting with the framing, Srijit shows half faces of his characters in tight close-ups confronting with each other. Without creating any enhancing impact, one doesn’t mind watching it in RAJKAHINI, but in BEGUM JAAN it looks pretty awkward as some kind of error annoying the viewers instead of making a statement of any kind.
As a common conclusion, never in any of the version the director explains that why Begum Jaan is ready to sacrifice everyone’s life and fight but not willing to move out of the venue asking for another home in exchange from the visiting officials, when she could have easily re-establish the ‘always selling sex-business’ anywhere in the town taking advantage of her reputation earned. The reasoning is never there in any of the main dialogues of the leading lady and that’s exactly what defines the decisive difference between the vision of a blessed, progressive writer like MANTO and his inspired clones.
In all, respectfully dedicated to Manto and Ismat Chugtai, though RAJKAHINI scores a lot more than its Hindi remake BEGUM JAAN due to the above mentioned merits, I would still not hesitate to rate both as more or less missed opportunities as per their well-chosen, thoughtful theme mixing the masters works.
Coming to most important part of this write-up,
At times cinema greatly helps when it manages to catch the right spirit and soul of a novel or short story introducing you to a writer for the first time and you get truly inspired to dig more information about the master and his much appreciated famous works post watching the impressive film.
But what happens when a director and his project fails to do the same?
What happens when a filmmaker is not able to interpret or represent the soul of the original story/novel coming out with a mediocre or poor film?
What happens if a movie tells you the same story in a completely different manner remaining far away from its brutal essence and the original ‘exclusive’ charm?
In all the above cases,
such a film literally ‘robs you’ …………….. robs you of an experience which can never be relived or repaired again in the entire lifetime ahead resulting in a big loss.
Explaining it differently, if you haven’t read or seen the original works of Manto, Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta (writer-director has been inspired from) and have already seen either RAJKAHINI or BEGUM JAAN faintly revealing their powerful basic content incorporating it all together……… then you have been robbed of a precious shocking experience knowing their cruel twists……. that would have certainly made a much greater, transforming impact if innocently read and seen in their original forms.
In more specific words,
What Manto’s KHOL DO does to you in its raw form… RAJKAHINI doesn’t.
The way Manto’s TOBA TEK SINGH forces you to stop for a while and think…… BEGUM JAAN doesn’t.
And how both Shyam Benegal’s MANDI and Ketan Mehta’s MIRCH MASALA impressively come out with their respective social messages ……. BEGUM JAAN or RAJ KAHINI fail to do the same robbing you of that essential VIRGIN SHOCK………. forever.
In fact this is the serious damage such films do to the great, unmissable life teaching literature and meaningful cinema…. unintentionally.
Summing up, on the cost of sounding preachy or interfering in your personal choices, if you have already seen any of the two films without going through the original works then the damage has already been done, but if you haven’t watched any of them yet, then do first try to read and see the following experiencing the magic in the right sequence as it should be…….. giving you the shocking experience.
Read Manto’s short stories TOBA TEK SINGH & KHOL DO (in context of the film) and as many more as you can at the following link.
Watch both Shyam Benegal’s MANDI (based on a short story ‘ANANDI’ by Ghulam Abbas) and Ketan Mehta’s MIRCH MASALA (based on a short story ‘ABU MAKRANI’ by Chunnilal Madiya) easily available in DVDs and the official online.
And then go for either RAJKAHINI (Bengali) or BEGUM JAAN (Hindi) as per your choice realizing the major difference in their visions and presentations.
Sharing an interesting fact in the end, MANDI was the first film in which Ila Arun got introduced in 1983 (revolving around a brothel), also contributing her bit in the lyrics department. And now after almost 35 years she plays the most elderly lady in a similar brothel taking care about the girls and a kid too completing a full circle.