By Devapriva Sanyal and Melissa Webb.
Srijit Mukherji’s Rajkahini (2015) is the Bengali version of 2017’s much feted Begum Jaan, the film which served as the director’s first foray into Bollywood. The film is centred on India’s Partition and is uniquely seen through the eyes of women: a group of prostitutes in a brothel who are, one fine morning, told that they are to clear out of the house they have called home for many years. They are being forced out because the Radcliffe Line dividing India and Pakistan is to be drawn through the middle of their house, ensuring its demolition. However, instead of taking the conventional narrative-route and showing the women as helpless victims, Srijit empowers his female heroines: they refuse to leave the brothel and are prepared to die for their act of disobedience, preferring to make their marks in history as strong women who will not comply. They are unshakable and unfalteringly determined.
The film begins with a sense of unremarkable familiarity, since the Partition has long been a topic of discussion in films, literature, and theater. The plot also has echoes of Sadat Hassan Manto’s stories of Partition, namely Toba Tek Singh. This sense of predictability disappears, however, as the narrative unfolds and viewers are drawn into the immensely personal vision of Srijit Mukherji, who attempts to do something different with a well-worn theme. In a significant exchange, Begum Jaan, the fierce matriarch who runs the brothel, informs the officers of the British Raj that those in the brothel are victims of oppression, violence, and anarchy. Furthermore, they have been abandoned by their families, both Hindus and Muslims, so the line dividing the two countries based on religion is not valid for them. Neglected by society– living on the fringes, literally and figuratively– they have very little to call their own. Among the cast of characters who rally around Begum Jaan (played by Rituaprna Sengupta) are the old lady whom everyone calls ‘thakuma’; the school teacher, who’s also a political activist; the pimp, who is in love with one of the prostitutes; and the local Hindu police officer, who enjoys their company, while also standing up for them. Such a varied and intersecting world of prostitutes and the people who surround them invokes Shyam Benegal’s celebrated Mandi (1983). Each character is sharply etched and beautifully portrayed. They heroically take up the call to arms to protect their honour and their land.
These converging themes of feminine power and the tight bonds the women have with members of their community are emphasized throughout the film. In spite of the concerted efforts of all, the women refuse to leave the house. In a pivotal scene, they are preyed upon by local-thug Kabir and his cohorts, who do not shy away from rape and murder. The pimp, Sujan, attempts to save them. Ultimately, Sujan dies to protect Rubina (Joya Ahsaan), the woman he loves, along with the other inhabitants of the brothel.
We again see the singularity of Srijit Mukherji’s vision in the way he breaks many stereotypes in the film, especially in his depiction of the two officers of the Raj: the Hindu/Bengali Mr. Prafulla Sen, representative of the Congress party, and Muhammed Ilias, a Muslim who represents the Muslim League. These men share a friendship, as well as troubled pasts. Family members of both have had to pay with their lives for “freedom.” Sen shows cruelty when he hires Kabir to evict the tenants of the brothel; he does not shy away from violence. On the other hand, Ilias is of a more empathetic nature and feels sickened when Sen gives him graphic descriptions of the butcherings, which were happening everywhere in the country during Partition. This is noteworthy because Indian historians have been accused of being particularly biased against the Muslims; Srijit breaks the formula with positive portrayals of Ilias and also of Mr. Akhtar, the police officer in charge of Debiganj.
Rajkahini is a wide-ranging and varied piece of cinema. There are many subplots and each is as compelling as the other. Within the brothel, there are at least four narratives of love playing out against the main plot. For instance, the school teacher played by Abir Chatterjee is in love with Begum Jaan, for whom he risks his reputation by frequently giving the children in the family books and toys. He, in turn, is loved by Golaap who dreams of escaping the brothel and setting up a home with him. Sujan also asks Rubina to run away with him so that they can set up a home in the “wide world,” as he puts it. Loyal to Begum Jaan, Rubina laughs away the suggestion and dies fighting alongside her. The two tribal girls, Koli and Duli, find love between themselves. It is possible to view the co-existence of so many plots as a serious flaw in the film, as on one- too-many occasions the narration does seem a bit too stretched. Still, there are consistent and redeeming flashes of brilliance throughout the film that keep it enthralling.
In one particularly powerful part of the film, we see Begum Jaan’s resoluteness towards her cause clash with her belief in female solidarity and her desire to protect the other women. She tries to cajole the Nawab who occasionally patronises the brothel into convincing those in power in Delhi to let them be, but he says he will only help them if he can spend a night with the new girl at the brothel. After Shabnam is raped, left to die near a relief camp, and abandoned by her family, Begum Jaan takes her under her wing to protect her. She repeatedly requests that Nawab choose another of the women, but she eventually relents to his wishes and allows him to use Shabnam for his pleasures. Despite her initial reluctance, Begum Jaan comes to view the trade as a necessary-tragedy in her mission to maintain her brothel, her home, and her dignity.
What I found especially interesting (and peculiar, at first) about the film’s narrative is the interspersion of elements from Abanindranath Tagore’s text Rajkahini, after which the film takes its name. One wonders why the director uses this motif at all, for Tagore’s tales, which are commonplace among Bengali households, are dedicated to expressing the valour and bravery of the Rajputs. Not until the very end did I understand the importance of this maneuver. As Begum Jaan, the other members of her household, and the gatekeeper Salim engage in warfare with Kabir’s goons, the members of the establishment sit back and enjoy the spectacle of, in Kabir’s words, “smoking the rats out of their hole.” One by one the women fall until there are only four or five of them left, literally fleeing the burning house to face their oppressors and gaze into the distant darkness. Salim soon falls burnt to the ground, trying to protect the honour of his beloved mistress Begum Jaan. The goons then inform Prafulla Sen that his men wish to have some fun with the remaining prostitutes. It is then that Begum Jaan swiftly turns around and goes back inside with Duli and Rubina, barring the doors of the burning brothel. Through this action, it is told that they prefer to die in a blazing house, consumed in flames and crumbling to ashes, rather than be dishonoured as spoils of the war. The whole camp, deprived of the bodies they thought they deservedly won, watches in disbelief as the women disappear into the burning house. There, the ‘thakuma’ reads out the story of Queen Padmini who gave up her life by committing ‘jauhar’ rather than be dishonoured and defiled at the hands of the invading Alauddin Khilji, who had taken a fancy to her having heard of her beauty, and who attacked Chittor to take her away by force. The film ends with this effective image of the thakuam reading the story. As the flames burn all around them, she recites this line from Tagore’s text: “Joy maha sati r joy…joy maha sati r joy.” Here, Srijit equates the famed virtuous and beautiful Queen Padmini with the madam of a brothel, with the national anthem playing as background score. “Sati” is a very difficult word to translate; there is no word that can be called its semantic equivalent, so I shall leave it to the viewer to be swayed by the power in the ending-visuals.
Srijit Mukherji’s Rajkahini is not merely a tale of Partition and of the displaced millions, but also serves as an account of the evils lurking within the human heart, along with the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and love that are found even among the fallen and the abandoned. The film is a celebration of that and much more.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).
Melissa Webb is an editorial assistant for Film International and received her MA in English from Rutgers University-Camden in January 2017. She helps program the Reel East Film Festival.