Srijit Mukherji’s Bengali film Rajkahini (2015) is being remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan. Vidya Balan will play the lead role of a cantankerous madam who runs a brothel. Rajkahini’s story is set in 1947, when a British legislation on the partition of Bengal interferes with the location of the brothel, which is situated on barren land bordering India and what was then East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. The Hindi remake is also being directed by Mukherji and produced by Vishesh Films. The setting has shifted from Bengal to the India-Pakistan border.
Rituparna Sengupta plays the central character of Begum Jaan in Rajkahini. She runs the brothel with an iron fist and wages a war against officials trying to evict her from the land. Police and politicians get involved in the fracas, which turns the border dispute into a full-fledged battleground. The high-voltage denouement, involving smoking barrels and blazing fires, is a spectacular display of the human spirit.
The introductory sequence in Rajkahini, in which Begum Jaan is shown enjoying a massage by a masseuse, bears a resemblance to Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s controversial Urdu short story from 1942. In Lihaaf, a bored housewife named Begum Jaan employs the services of a masseuse. But the similarity ends there. The film borrows its title from the children’s book Rajkahini by Abanindranath Tagore.
Rajkahini thinly references two women-centric films. In Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), politicians bicker over a prime piece of property that houses a brothel run by a foul-mouthed madam (Shabana Azmi). Mandi was based on the Hollywood movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) as well as on Ghulam Abbas’s Urdu story Anandi.
In Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), set in the 1940s, a local tax collector (Naseeruddin Shah) harasses a group of women, especially Smita Patil’s Sonbai, who work at a local spice factory. When the women find themselves trapped in the crumbling factory, they retaliate.
Rajkahini is engagingly conceived but poorly executed. While it does provide ample fodder for imagination when almost a dozen women are put under one roof, the movie suffers from overwrought dialogue and stagey performances. However, it’s not without its merits when commenting on divisive politics, the caste system, moral hypocrisy, injustice and the position of women in society.
In September 2015, the makers of Rajkahini used the Indian national anthem in its entirety for a promotional video before its release in October 2015. The music video assembled several singing stars to give voice to five stanzas that have been left out from the national anthem.
Begum Jaan has a fine line to tread, keeping in view Rajkahini’s exploration of sensitive Hindu-Muslim issues, the use of expletives and the bold themes of inter-personal relationships. The important question is this: what will Pahlaj Nihalani think of the remake?