In a few years from now when someone sits down to write a book on Vidya Balan, it would automatically assume her place amongst the all-time greats of Indian cinema.
It is not Ms Balan’s acting prowess alone that would make her worthy of such benediction. If her talent were to be a criterion then she would fall short. No. It is the manner in which, in a relatively short span of time and only a handful of films she has become one of the very few stars that have the entire film pivot around the character they portray.
In fact, right from her debut in Parineeta (2005), she began to carve a space for herself where most films that came to her demanded a strong central character. Her performances notwithstanding, Balan’s mere presence in films Ishqiya (2010), No One Killed Jessica (2011), The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) is enough to stamp any film that she features in, as ‘special’. But the trouble with good actors like Balan — whose presence is powerful enough to be considered a performance unto itself — is that on a bad day, they go from being the biggest boon to the greatest bane for a film, in the blink of an eye.
On paper, Begum Jaan had all the makings of a great film. Balan stars as the madam of a brothel through which the Radclife Line (dividing India from Pakistan in 1947) is expected to pass; she refuses to give up her property even after her benefactor (the local raja; played by Naseeruddin Shah) withdraws his protection. A remake of Srijit Mukherji’s own Bengali film, Rajkahini (2015), Begum Jaan is not only tailor-made for Balan but in many ways also god-sent, considering the lean patch her career has been going through. The film’s trailer crossed over 20 million views across various social media platforms in under a week — testimony that Vidya Balan and Begum Jaan were a match made in heaven. But when the film released the reaction was quite different. Most reviews were unanimous on two accounts – the film was a tad too loud and Vidya Balan’s performance appeared to be the weakest link.
Unique as it might have been in concept, Begum Jaan’s imagery and the style in which its narrative was executed makes it look rather familiar and to a great degree, predictable. Mukherji uses the character of Amma (Ila Arun) to tell stories of iconic women from India who stood up to injustice, and using Balan to portray Rani Lakshmi Bai and others sets up the platform for the film’s final act and how the climax would eventually play out. What this also does is spoon-feed the audience to be ready for Balan’s heroism as the film progresses, which considering the story as well as Balan’s talent, shouldn’t have been a difficult task. Although the film has nearly managed to recover its cost within the first few days of release, and in the longer run might even end up making a profit, it will be a while before Balan’s stature recovers. Irrespective of its shortcomings, could Begum Jaan have managed to strike the right chord had Balan not been lazy about her portrayal? There are only three reactions that she depicts through the course of the film — she is either doped out, lost in her own world where each syllable coming out of her mouth is supposed to be strung together to make some sher or she is angry at someone, about to sign their death farmaan or she is just wistful. These three moods are repeated ad nauseam and as a result, nearly every scene that features Balan seems repetitive.
For this writer, the film’s trailer was a portent of the misstep that Begum Jaan is being seen as. The film seemed to be the kind of straight story where everything would depend on the actors to make it tick and being the anchor, it would invariably end up being Balan’s responsibility to tie the whole thing together. There is a possibility that once the hoopla about the film being a letdown settles, Begum Jaan might enjoy a renewed interest within the viewers. This wouldn’t be too difficult as the supporting cast is good and there are more than a few moments that hold enough intrigue to make Begum Jaan worth a re-look in times to come.
At the same time, there is a great possibility that Begum Jaan could be the end of Vidya Balan as we have known her up until now. In a way, it is good because Balan has been pigeonholed into doing seemingly “serious” roles. Her efforts to shift gears with a Bobby Jasoos (2014) or a Shaadi Ke Side Effects (2014) have not been commercially successful and even though the failure was far from solely Balan’s, it has nonetheless created a myth that she can only excel playing sombre or thoughtful characters. Initially in her career, Balan had featured in the popular comedy TV show Hum Paanch (2000) and even early films like Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) and Heyy Babyy (2007) displayed a decent flair for comedy or lighter roles — yet even there, she was relegated to being the comparatively serious kinds.