Remake of a film is a familiar phenomenon which can have interesting ramifications in terms of creativity, technology and capital. Often times these are actually intertwined or at least related to one another. In cinema, remake usually refers to a film which uses another film as its source material. A remake is often expected to resonate with fresh creative input by the filmmaker and thus having a different take on the earlier material and thus pushing it towards a new direction. A classic example would be the mercurial violence and strong political contextualization of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), based on the apparently more straightforward morality tale of Howard Hawks’ 1932 film of the same name. There are also certain shifts in technology such as from black and white to colour or from the Academy standard aspect ratio of the studio era to the widescreen format of 2.35:1, which can be found in case of Scarface. Oftentimes these very shifts in technology can drive a filmmaker to remake his own film such as Yasujirō Ozu’s black-and-white A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) remade into the colour Floating Weeds (1959). Finally there’s the logic of capital which triggers remaking films from one language into another, keeping in mind a new and bigger market and thus boosting the profitability of the same source text or material. A large number of European and Asian films have been remade in English for the American market in the past couple of decades. But even then, overriding the sheer profit motive, certain filmmakers have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to have their personal takes on the earlier films.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) April 7, 2017
Srijit Mukherjee’s Begum Jaan (2017) is a remake of his earlier Bengali film Rajkahini released in 2015. Now remaking a film from a regional language into Hindi in order to reach a wider pan Indian audience is not a new phenomenon. Undertaking such a project is inevitably a capitalist venture to increase profitability as mentioned earlier. However, a few significant questions persist nonetheless. 2015 to 2017 has witnessed quite a remarkable shift in the overall social and political climate of the country ushering in the most intolerant if not the most violent times nationwide in living memory. Given such a context, is it too much to expect that a film which is being touted as ‘feminist’ should have the honesty to seriously engage with the gender issues and identity politics which have become more relevant than ever? Why revisit a film with a more resourceful infrastructural support and a comparatively bigger budget unless there is at least an attempt to improve upon the technical aspects which mark the industrial cinema? Begum Jaan ends up merely being an almost shot-by-shot remake of the Bengali original with a prologue and a coda added while every other aspect remains absolutely the same as before. Right from shot composition to colour palette to camera movement to the selection of actors and their costumes and the dialogue, everything comes across as an ill-intentioned attempt in manufacturing an imitation which is palpably inferior to the original which was quite a repulsive mess to begin with. But even before getting into a value judgment of the Hindi film, the very lack of any serious engagement with or creative input to the original text reeks of an artistic dishonesty, a fraudulent behaviour, a criminal act.
In terms of cinematic craft, this film marks an all-time low for the director if it’s even possible to imagine that there exists such a rung of the ladder. But there is no denying the visible deteriorations the film has undergone in the course of its Bollywood production. There are the series of unnecessarily shaky handheld camera movements which remain consistent while the narrative shifts from an initial sense of stability to the climactic chaos. The ‘half face’ framing of the earlier film also returns with a vengeance and this time the camera operation is so poor that many a times the face of the actor is almost going completely out of the frame for at least a few frames while he delivers his lines. In fact, this raises another relevant question. If the film entirely sticks to the framing and composition of Rajkahini, why is the credit of DOP given to Gopi Bhagat instead of Avik Mukhopadhyay? Given the nature and quality of his work, Gopi Bhagat can be credited as a camera operator and quite an incompetent one at that! With such condition of shot material it is even beyond Walter Murch to salvage it on editing table and there inevitably follows a series of dip-to-blacks as the narrative is pushed and shoved forward in the absence of any real movement. For some unknown reason it turns out to be the transition of choice, be it a temporal shift of 70 years or 8 hours or a simultaneous spatial shift of a kilometre or so.
But as with Rajkahini, even with its evil twin the most glaring crime is against women and women’s issues, which ironically it pretends to celebrate. Throughout the film there is a conscious and continuous attempt to canonize the titular character with figures like Meera Bai who is glorified for her pronounced asexuality and sword wielding figures like Razia Sultana and Lakshmi Bai celebrated for their Mardaani or masculinity. It only gets further worse as the spectre of Rajkahini is resurrected in the final scene and it comes back to haunt with a regressive and medieval sense of honour as the myth of Padmini is evoked and the self-proclaimed feminist film celebrates self-immolation over surviving sexual violence. While all these elements were present in the Bengali film, Begum Jaan truly outdid itself in the prologue scene which takes place at night in contemporary Delhi invoking memories of Jyoti Singh’s gang rape and fatal assault as a girl tries to escape her attackers and suddenly comes across a stoic old woman who faces the assailants shielding the girl and starts to take off her clothes. The assailants are either repulsed, revolted or repentant which is not really clear with their Neanderthal gestures but they leave the girl alone. As the film jumps back 70 years in time, it is gradually revealed that the old woman is none other than Laadli, the youngest girl in the brothel who once faced a similar situation and saved her mother and another prostitute by undressing completely in front of a potential rapist. In a single stroke, the filmmaker shamelessly exploits the 2012 Delhi gang rape tragedy and the powerful anti-state political rhetoric of protests against AFSPA in Manipur, severing them from their respective relevant histories and turning them into commodities. Furthermore, this leads to an utterly insensitive and illiterate simplification of gender violence as the filmmaker conjures some kind of an idea of a body which cannot be desired due to their age be it young or old while the prostitutes who are women in their prime reside on the other end of this ‘Srijit-Mukherjee’s-gender-violence’ spectrum.
Finally few words remain to be said regarding the film in its reception context since it might provide certain symptomatic insights. Begum Jaan has been one of the rare films which have been unanimously panned by critics and publications all over despite a National Award winning director at the helm and the presence of actors like Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapoor and Ashish Vidyarthi in the cast. This is a safe testimony about the abominable quality of the film. However when Rajkahini was released two years back, of which the current film can be considered to be a clone, a certain urban middle class section of the audience and particularly the vernacular dailies were exuberant in their appreciation of the film leading the director to proclaim himself ‘the-first-boy-of-Bengali-cinema’. This throws into sharp relief the degeneration of mainstream film culture in Bengal where merit is discarded for political and media connections taking advantage of an audience who has long forgotten the ways of seeing a film. Both in terms of film production and reception, the overall cultural fabric is rotten where a serious engagement with a film and a fair evaluation is a socio-political anathema.
Arup Ratan Samajdar