At first glance the title promises a movie which would champion the emancipation of women. Looking regal in her kotha or haveli, Begum Jaan presides over all she surveys – at first.
However, as the movie progresses and she declaims her lines with bravado, we notice a disturbing capitulation to the patriarchal system.
The ritual self-immolation by the clan is suicide under Indian law. It is prohibited.
Begum Jaan’s whore-house is in no man’s land between India and Pakistan. In this space she is a law unto herself. She ridicules the logic of the Radcliffe line conceptualized on 17 August 1947 which is to be drawn by means of barbed wire through the very innards of the kothi. She says suavely that when it comes to sex there are no boundaries.
Throughout the film we have the nani telling stories of famous Indian women who laid down their lives to fight for their land and honour. The Rajput women who committed jauhar at the fall of Chittor in 1568 and the rani of Jhansi who died fighting in 1858 are valorized and brought to life for emulation through the sutradhar (narrator). Little do we realize that this coven will also be performing the ritualistic act.
History-- and Amitabh Bachchan, who provides the voiceover for the background to the Radcliffe line – will tell us that the movie is set in 1947. This was more than a century after Lord Bentinck abolished sati in Bengal in 1829 through the efforts of Raja Ram Mohun Roy. Still, the movie with its medieval mindset traps women into a space without any option.
A menacing fear hangs over the film, with the women in the frontline of the violence perpetrated on them. From the food poisoning to the withdrawal of the Raja’s favour the noose tightens around them.
The two scenes of attempted rape, torn out of the pages of Mahashweta Devi show an evolution in a women’s response to a violation of her body. In the opening scene the very heartland of the capital – Connaught Place – is the setting of the rape of a young girl with her boyfriend. Reminiscent of the Nirbhaya case, the rapists are repelled when an old woman steps forward, shielding the young girl, and disrobes herself instead. In the ending scenes when the young girl is fleeing from the kothi, it is she who disrobes herself to protect the dignity of the woman behind her.
The closure to the film is deeply disturbing. The horror signalled by the incipient smirk which each woman in turn exhibits at the end, when it dawns on them that they too can achieve martyrdom, is still hidden from the viewer.
Women continue to be victims in a spiral of violence engineered by men. When there is no way out their only recourse is to go up in flames chanting to the flames to devour them.
Is this the message for today’s ipod-wielding women?
We need films to redeem and rescue women from this obscurantism.
Published in Gomantak Times, Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 7 May 2017.