Bollywood’s “Stop Rape” trend is still running strong. In 2016 Amitabh Bachchan returned in the poignant courtroom drama PINK, and early 2017 saw Hrithik Roshan play a blind avenger after the brutal rape and murder of his wife in Kaabil, although this film leaned more towards Roshan’s character and the satisfying murder of the rapists in a generic action-movie formula.
But only Begum Jaan presents the topic of rape for what it really is – a grotesque power play. Set during partition, the brothel owner Begum Jaan, played by Vidya Balan, is told to evacuate her home as it lies directly on the Radcliffe Line – the new border between Pakistan and India. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of refugees that decided to relocate during that period, Begum stands her ground.
Based on the Bengali film Rajkahini, Srijit Mukerjee directs a powerful multifaceted drama not only highlighting the plight of Indian women during the violence of partition, but also symbolizing the destruction of the ideal free nation. Begum Jaan is less about prostitutes than it is about exploitation, power, and division.
There are two significant metaphors in this film – Begum’s home and Laadli’s exposure.
Begum’s home is a metaphor for independent Indian prior to partition. I realize the more proper readers may be aghast at this comparison. But Kelsey, you might be thinking, Begum’s home is a brothel. This is technically true. But we are only shown signs of prostitution when extras are needed or to introduce the characters. Otherwise the residents of Begum’s home are relatively free to do what they wish. The building itself is elegant, reminiscent of a small palace. It is located in nature and empty fields, being free from all attachment to the outside world.
In addition, rather than focus on sex work, the emphasis lies in the exploitation of each character. These are women cast out from society due to being used and abused. One could argue that after centuries of occupation traumatized the Indian psyche – Muslim and Hindi included. The land and resources were exploited under colonialism. It was only independence that returned power to the people.
But the joy of independence was brief as partition nipped at its heels. Politicians and religious-nationalists encouraged riots and hatred between religions, leading to mass murder and to the creation of two states – India and Pakistan (now Pakistan and Bangladesh).
Begum Jaan stands in the face of this communalist violence and attempts to fight it head on. Unfortunately, she fails. Despite defeating a hit-man and his goons, her home catches fire during the fighting, and realizing that her world is disappearing, Begum decided to die in the fire, in her home, with the remaining women.
This episode of violence on women and the weak (as men are close killed in the final battle) is linked to the culture of rape in current times. The viewer finds this connection through Laadli, who both as a young child and an elderly woman aids the weak by exposing herself without fear or emotion to potential rapists.
This act opens the film, and without context appears bizarre. First, that it is doubtful that a rapist would stop if an old woman or child started removing their clothes. Age is not a factor in rape – neither is beauty or relationship status. In fact, rape is solely about power.
Laadli’s act is meant to symbolize the reversal of power. She gives the perpetrator what she believes he wants – her body. But she does so without emotion or fear. She stares back blankly. She does not cry out or beg.
The potential rapists – young hooligans in 2016 and the local police chief in 1947 both react with revulsion. She uses her vulnerability to take away their power. In fact, her body acts as a mirror – reflecting their perversity back at them.
Laadli is used to symbolize strength and the human spirit. No matter how traumatized or exploited an individual is, it is possible to fight back.
Both of these metaphors – Begum Jaan’s house, and Laadli’s actions – both enrich the meaning of the film. Begum Jaan is not only about women fighting the system – it is about the power dignity of society’s most vulnerable and the meaning of freedom.