Last week, the singer and actor Janelle Monáe said something that, coming from her fabulous self, was a bit of a stinker. “Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex.” Fans and critics jumped to point out the with her sex strike idea — a similar theme was the crux of a inspired 2015 film, Spike Lee’s almost unwatchable — the most glaring one being expecting women to be more than game to sacrifice their sexuality for a larger cause.
The convenience with which you can offer up women’s bodies as points of resistance, without thinking twice about how such a resistance may work, is exactly the kind of shortsightedness that is so off-putting about Srijit Mukherji’s new film Begum Jaan. A remake of his Partition period film Rajkahini (2015), it was highly anticipated for its portrayal of women sex workers at a brothel in Punjab which is owned by the eponymous Begum Jaan — a ruthless madam with a heart of gold played by Vidya Balan. Everything is running smoothly at the kotha in 1947 until representatives from the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League inform Begum that she and her girls have a month to hot-foot it out of her home, since Radcliffe’s Line of Control to divide India from Pakistan will pass through it. The women instead decide to fight to the death.
But before you even get to how Mukherji ruins the plot’s potential by trying to do too much and ending up only skimming the surface of Partition upheavals, you have to rewind to the beginning of the movie.
It begins in the present day, with an interpretation of the December 16 gang-rape incident. Two men on a bus attack a woman. She runs for it, shielding herself from her assaulters by hiding behind an old woman who then strips slowly, to the incredulity and revulsion of the assaulters. Horrified, they flee the scene. Even if you try to ignore the massive tri-colour blowing in the background (it looks triumphant, I’m really not sure why), the scene doesn’t make sense because it relies on the grossly flawed premise that an old woman’s nudity is a terrifying deterrent for anyone intent on assault or rape.
Towards the end of the film, there’s a repetition of this incident, set in the past. A child called Laadli (Gracy Goswami), who grows up into the old woman of the present day scene (she’s wearing the same ribbons in her hair in case you miss all the other symbolism), tries to protect her mother from rape by undressing stoically. The policeman who seemed so keen on rape is horrified, humiliated and feels so repentant that he becomes a farmer. (Don’t go looking for logic, there isn’t any.) When the film ends circling back to the old-woman-as-saviour scene, you have to pause and wonder what Mukherji was thinking.