Srijit Mukherjee’s latest film Rajkahini traces back to history and narrates one of the many gruesome incidents that had happened during the Parition of Bengal in 1947. A drama of epic proportion, this review finds out the high and low points in the film.
In Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s one of the less important films Mando Meyer Upakhyan, Rituparna Sengupta plays the prostitute Rajani in a brothel which was situated in the middle of a forest – far removed from human inhabitation. Rajani, who is fading her earthly charms, wants to induct Lati, her teen-age daughter to the trade as early as she can.
The film acts on a number of symbolic levels with post-modern reading of shifting centres. However, within the metaphorical overtones as well, the improbability of a thriving brothel so removed from locality was striking. It is definitely of conjecture hence, whether the locale was meant only for the benefit of the director’s tricks, even at the expense of plausibility of the plot or the setting. In this regard, Satyajit Ray along with many other reasons as well, seems the ideal role model where, most of the times, the minute details (historical, temporal and geographical) never seem out of place.
In Srijit Mukherjee’s latest Rajkahini this sense of discomfort starts pretty early in the film. Even after one dispenses off the irrelevant opening shots of Indian soldiers marching in front of the Pakistan gate (in 2014, it is mentioned) to portray that India and Pakistan are now different countries courtesy the partition. Here again there is this mansion-turned-brothel in a truly god-forsaken land with Rituparna playing Begum Jaan who is at the helm of things (though here instead of her own daughter we find the teenage daughter of another prostitute, Juthika). Is the location serving the purpose of only being the cameraman’s delight due to the wide and top-angle shots? It may well be so – the ornamentation taking better of the logical parity needed in the narrative. Just like the geographical characteristics more attuned to the western districts of Bengal where the question of laying fences will never arise.
Contemporary Bengali cinema is plagued with films on ‘relationship’ with an overdose of nostalgia – a theme which repeats itself with enduring frequency. In this context Rajkahini however stands out for the canvas it works upon. Srijit has himself made Jatishmar before which shifts back and forth between time-periods. Yet, the palette of Rajkahini is broader, bigger and emotional. Partition is one sore area for generations of Bengalis (and Punjabis predominantly since it is indeed a partition of Bengal and Punjab that happened in 1947 rather than a partition of India as a whole!), also for them who are born decades after the event. The collective subconscious is raw and wounded even now, there are bloodspots in our moon even today. That is why, the lapses and flaws that are in the narrative of the film tend to get overlooked and hence forgiven.
There are two distinct philosophical bearings on which the film primarily revolves – the secular pitching and the patriarchal modes of operation. Needless to say both are entwined. When Begum Jaan retaliates to the government officials of both the countries stating that in her brothel she doesn’t look at the caste and religion of the girls for admission or that of the customers her voice is uncertain. The Pakistani government official replies “that happens in every whore-house” to which Begum Jaan knows she doesn’t have an answer. Even within the contours of her fractured world, she is a pawn of the patriarchal system.
In one telling sequence we find Begum Jaan coyly serving the Nawab to whom she owes the place and also the safety and security of her and the girls of her brothel. This is the only time we can sense the powers of hierarchy that belittle Begum’s supreme control on her subjects. In this context it is important to note her name – Begum (and not a ‘Bai’) Jaan (meaning ‘soul’ in urdu) which can’t be accidental and attenuates the mockery of the entire phallic system.
Two other men – Sujan, the pimp who was reduced to almost a laughing stock and Selim, the wood-faced security person who sacrifices his life in saving the girls in the end (much like Abu Miya played to perfection by Om Puri in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala) . The brothel which hence seemed devoid of any ‘proper’ man was dependent on the Nawab and his ability to ensure that the house will not be brought down.
The other man, Mastar, brought glimmer, happiness and hope to the brothel. Unlike the teacher of Mando Meyer Upakhyan who actually liberates Lati from the shackles of drudgery, the teacher (Mastar) flees the brothel when confronted by Begum Jaan. He does come back later with a revenge – there are faint indications of his emotional influence on Begum but there is nothing substantial to prove the same in the narrative. In a definitive scene later when the Nawab returns from Delhi and tells Begum that he will not be able to protect her and the brothel anymore, Begum Jaan’s fortitude shines through the night sky. The surety in her voice, her stern body language and the absolute denial of the power-system that tries to govern her makes her not only defiant but also dangerous to the male ego. She shouts – “I don’t need any men to protect me”, with a conviction which was lacking belief earlier. In self-immolation the director equates her to Padmini, the Rajput queen (the references of Raj Kahini, the celebrated novel of Abanindranath Tagore was at times excess and in the end quite ludicrous) – but does that liberate Begum from the patriarchal mores or does she ultimately succumb to the languor of an immobile society?
The film’s climax shifted from the melodramatic Gulab Gang to the tense and taut Mirch Masala. Whereas, Sonbai (an irrepressible Smita Patil) won the first round against the male gaze (though we know this victory is short-lived), Begum Jaan’s tragedy liberates her and in turn confines us to a sense of harrowing guilt.
For Rituparna Sengupta this is indeed a larger than life role – one which any Bengali actress don’t get quite often. She tried hard with a coarse voice and violent overtures to play Begum Jaan – she is fascinating in parts. At other times she is inconsistent – in her acting and also her accent as it shifts falteringly from Bengali to Hindi/Urdu quite noticeably. She occasionally did remind us of Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s delicately woven Mandi (that has Shabana and Smita – two of India’s finest actresses of all times) and also the recent version of Umrao Jaan (2006) where she was the hookah-welding mother figure of the courtesan quarter.
The other actors have played their part as expected. Jisshu Sengupta as Kabir, the pestilent killer does a bravado – a very different characterization for him. Abir as the Mastar lacked the backing of the script – his villainous turnaround was not properly cooked up. The girls in the brothel – Jaya Ehsan, Sudipta Chakraborty, Sohini Sarkar, Parno Mitra and the others lived their character. Kaushik Sen and Saswata Chatterjee as the two Government officials of Pakistan and India respectively were apt in their grief, fear and hatred. At times when they confront each other the camera holds a vertical half of their face in turns – probably indicating that the two halves form the whole and today it is partitioned, halved, massacred.
How will posterity remember Rajkahini? This is a film which has the grandeur of an epic and the possibilities of being one. It will work in parts with an audience that has gone through the trauma of Partition and the associated atrocities of killing and rape – that audience will feel sad, pensive and somewhat agitated. But to one who has exposure to a world film genre that delves into history and drama – the film probably falls short, significantly.
Post Script: The ‘Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata’ song in the end does create a different aural magic. It comprises of the forgotten last four stanzas of the song by Rabindranath Tagore whose first stanza is what we stand up to and sing as the national anthem of our great country.
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