Begum Jaan, released in 2014 and directed by Srijit Mukherjee, makes a clear and bold statement regarding the unwavering strength and spirit of women during the 1947 partition.
The movie starts with a scene set in modern times, where a couple is harassed on the bus by a few drunk men and the assaulters attempt to rape the woman. When she tries to run away and protect herself, an old woman steps in to save her, by removing her own clothes in front of the men, which makes them run away from the scene.
Vidya Balan gives yet another spectacular performance as Begum Jaan, the main character of the film. Begum Jaan was a sex worker who ran a brothel with a number of women whom she rescued and raised herself, many of whom were abandoned by their family members. The film, set at the time of Partition, tries to make the viewers understand that every character in the movie has achieved their idea of freedom after entering the brothel: by living life on their own terms. Each girl has been a survivor of assault and were not allowed to live life on their own terms. It was as if they were living within the four walls.
Also, given the terrible communal nature of violence of the country at that time, Begum Jaan along with her girls, belonging to different religions, caste, creed and speaking different dialects, celebrated every festival filled with joy and togetherness, setting an example of unity amidst diversities.
When Partition was declared, the officials of India and Pakistan decided to start the procedure of drawing the Radcliffe line, which was a demarcation by the British government between the Indian and Pakistani halves of the Punjab Province and Bengal presidency. The film shows that the Radcliffe Line, unfortunately, passes through Begum Jaan’s house.
Despite this, Begum Jaan refuses to vacate her place – because it would cost her her freedom. It was her courage and sheer determination to not take an official order seriously which gives the viewers goosebumps. One line that becomes the icing on the cake is “Aap jisse zubaan se kotha aur dimaag mein randi-khana soch rahe hai na, yeh mera ghar hai, mera watan, aur isse pehle ki koi hume yaha se hataye… hum uske haath, pair, aur jism ka, woh kya kehte hai.. partition kar denge!”(What you’re calling a brothel and thinking as a whorehouse… that is my house, my country, and before anyone can remove me from here, I’ll partition their hands, legs and entire body).
Through this, Begum Jaan tries to convey the feeling that vacating her home would mean giving away her freedom and the life that she has built on her own terms. It would mean giving up on looking after every woman she had given shelter, which to her was an immense responsibility. She even made sure that every woman of her house are empowered enough to fight for themselves, with the help of Salim (Sumit NIjhawan), who serves as a counterpoint to the patriarchal forces that strive to dominate the lives of the brothel’s ladies. He represents loyalty, protection, and solidarity with the women, making him an important and multi-dimensional character in the story.
Vidya Balan embraces Begum Jaan’s persona with unshakeable strength, controlling every frame she appears in. Her portrayal of the harsh brothel madam is nothing short of outstanding. She conveys Begum Jaan’s complexities, from her intense protectiveness of her “family” to her softness beneath her tough facade. Her captivating performance is the film’s heart and soul, where she was willing to die with pride rather than dying begging on the streets. She was determined to live with dignity, even if people had isolated her and her family. She was aware of the fact that her girls will always be seen as outsiders when it comes to everyday matters, but where there was a question of pleasure and fun, no man then seems to be bothered about them or their religion, caste, colour, etc.
The film deliberately compares its ending with that of the story of Padmavati, Queen of Chittorgarh, where she decides to take her own life by walking into the fire the way she dreamt of living with pride and immense self-respect. In the film, the way the girls decide to end their life – by going inside their own burning home – shows their desire to die with dignity and respect; their desire not to become slaves. The decision to walk into fire in both these stories makes a bold statement about self respect and dignity, that both Rani Padmavati and Begum Jaan and her girls wanted.
The film raises critical questions on freedom and survival; though the women are ‘trapped’ in a brothel, they are free in their disregard for social norms. Their refusal to leave the premises, even in the face of approaching violence, is a tremendous expression of their authority and agency. They chose to shape their own fate, even if it meant confronting the violence of partition head-on.