Lasyapriya Sundaram (BOMBAY TIMES; April 9, 2017)

Bengali filmmaker Srijit Mukherji is all set to make his directorial debut in Bollywood with the Vidya Balan-starrer, Begum Jaan. Credited with ushering in a new wave in Bengali cinema, the national award-winning director talks about why he chose to tell a story about Partition and sex workers through his Hindi debut. Excerpts...

Is Begum Jaan a remake of the 2015 Bengali film, Rajkahini?
I would like to call it an adaptation. There are new scenes and sequences in Begum Jaan and the backdrop is different. In short, the cinematic focus and perspective of this film is unlike the Bengali version. The only similarity is the plot device and the number of characters. Some of their equations, and linguistic backgrounds are also different. Most importantly, Begum Jaan has a contemporary twist that Rajkahini doesn't have. In the Bengali film, the narrative stops at 1947. In Begum Jaan, it's linked to 2017.

Why did you choose to make sex workers the protagonists of your film? Was it to champion the cause of the underdog?
When you read the works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, you realise that the people who bore the brunt of Partition were either the drunkard on the street, the beggar, the sex worker, the pimp or the lower middle-class trader, who were ironically not the decision-makers. The marginalised section among the commoners was women and among the women, the marginalised were the prostitutes. In any society, the bottommost rung is the most exploited. And that's where planting the seeds of revolt would make narrative sense. That is why I decided that I will make them the champions of my revolt. When I was discussing the story with Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, he asked me why I had set my film in a brothel. I told him that his film Pink conveyed the message that even if a woman had taken money and was indulging in sex trade, her 'No' means 'No'. If the women characters in Pink were actually sex workers, the message would have been stronger. The message would mean, 'Irrespective of what my profession is, I am a woman and my No means No'. In Begum Jaan's case, the story could have been that of an old-age home, a normal household, an orphanage or a school. Then people would support it, saying that it's a noble institution that shouldn't be demolished to draw a border. My point is, even if it is a brothel, even if they are sex workers, their personal freedom is as important and as worthy of fighting for as that of any other citizen. This is why my protagonists are sex workers. I took an exaggerated example to put forward my point. Actually, the film is not about a brothel or even about Partition, it is about a group of survivors who defy nations and proclaim their space as their own.

Are you making a political statement through your film and stating that Partition was not a decision that was supported by one and all?
I have read chronicles of the time and when you read them, you realise that nothing has changed. Whether it is 1947 or 2017, the common man wants to make a livelihood and is not bothered about political ramifications. However, these people can be taken advantage of and led into believing that they are part of a huge movement. But they are selfish and are concerned only about their survival. So, if someone asked me whether Begum Jaan is patriotic, my answer will be... she is not at all patriotic. Her notion of country is her space, which is her kotha.

Do you think the film will be construed as a radical statement being made by you in the current political climate?
Will it? But most people believe in radical statements. I am talking about a time when a lot of personal freedom was sacrificed at the altar of political independence for good, bad or ugly ... I don't know. It all boils down to whose pen you are using while writing history. Is it a pen given to you by Lord Mountbatten, is it a pen from Gandhiji's ashram, is it Panditji's pen I am writing with, or is it that of Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel? Subhas Chandra Bose's pen was totally different. Similarly, the history written by a person whose house has been affected by Partition, will be completely different. It depends on the perspective. Whether what happened then was good or bad is debatable, but the crux of Begum Jaan is the ridiculous shoddiness with which Partition was handled.

Why did you zero in on Vidya to play the titular role?
To be honest, I had approached Vidya to play the role in the Bengali film as well. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. But when I came back with the Hindi version, she was bowled over. So, Vidya was always the first choice to play the role.

The film has expletives, were you worried about the Censor Board coming down heavily on it?
Mahesh Bhatt (producer) and I had our fingers crossed, but we witnessed a Censor Board, which we had not heard or read about. They were reasonable. They said that they were going to allow many of the expletives, as they have been contextualised. But they asked us to replace two expletives, saying that it is very easy to file a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in India and they didn't want to get into that situation. There were no cuts at all.

Are you comfortable making films in both Bengali and Hindi?
I have grown up watching and being emotionally close to Hindi films right from the era of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. I come from a pluralistic cinematic upbringing. I have been exposed to various kinds of films, various languages, various sensibilities and aesthetics. I have enjoyed films by David Dhawan, Satyajit Ray, Roman Polanski, Bimal Roy as well as Anurag Kashyap. My cinematic appetite is incredibly multi cuisine. If I had biryani instead of macher jhol, it wouldn't be any less appetising for me. I like telling stories and it could be in any language.