Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan is slated to hit theatres on 14th April but comparisons between his two leading ladies have already started. Vidya Balan seems unperturbed about it and on the contrary feels happy to be compared to an actor who she describes as amazing.
In an exclusive interview with Koimoi, the National Award-winning actress opens up on being offered Rajkahini initially, on Begum Jaan’s character, why she feels the period drama will remain significant 50 years later and more…
Why did you choose this role?
Srijit (Mukherji) had come to me with the original, Rajkahini. At that time I couldn’t do it. I was surprised when he came back to me with Bhatt Saab (Mahesh Bhatt) and Mukeshji (Mukesh Bhatt) saying ‘I’m making it in Hindi and I still want you in the film’. He asked me to watch Rajkahini and then take the decision. I found it to be extremely powerful and moving. I don’t think I have come across such a powerful female character on or even off screen! Someone who is not for a moment trying to put a lid on her power, someone who wears her power on her sleeve, someone who is shamelessly powerful, someone who exudes power every single moment. I love that! I wanted to feel that! So I said yes!
Tell us a little more about Begum Jaan
Begum Jaan is basically the madam of a brothel where there are 10 other women— nine prostitutes, one child and an elderly lady, who everyone calls amma, which is played by Ila Arun. It is the story of how the line of partition supposedly ran through the whorehouse, rendering half of it to Pakistan and the other half to Hindustan, which Begum Jaan could not get her head around. It’s about the fight that these 11 women put up to protect, to save their house, their space. Begum Jaan and her girls, they are like a family. While in Rajkahini, the focus was more on the macro-political side of partition, here it’s more of a human view of partition, through the lives of Begum Jaan and her girls.
You watched Rajkahini before saying yes for Begum Jaan. How was Rituparna Sengupta’s performance?
Awesome! Absolutely awesome! And not just Rituparna, who was of course, amazing, but also Sudipta (Chakraborty) and Joya (Ahsan), the actress from Bangladesh, Jisshu (Sengupta) was unbelievable! I loved everyone and their performances. While watching the film, I was well aware of the fact that I might like it and might want to play the role, which is why I think I consciously blocked out Ritu’s performance from my mind. I wanted to bring to it my own interpretation, and thankfully, when we started shooting for the film, Srijit (Mukherji) told me that he is treating it as a completely different film. It is a re-telling and not a remake. It’s an adaptation. He re-wrote some of the scenes, though the plot and the screenplay might be almost the same, what changes is some of the characterizations.
You were the first choice for Rajkahini. Why did you turn it down?
I was a bit unwell at that time, so I was taking a few months off from work. I was not in a mind frame to commit to anything at that point of time. I just wanted to feel well before I considered any scripts. In fact, I did not also hear a narration. He (Srijit Mukherji) gave me a very short story narration, which I found to be very interesting. But I just wanted to get well before signing any project.
How did you prepare for Begum Jaan’s role?
The preparation largely was sitting with Srijit. The script was quite complete in itself. It had all the answers to questions that might arise in one’s mind after reading the script. Then I sat with Srijit, who had researched extensively. I did Kahaani 2 and within 3 or 4 weeks, I was on the sets of Begum Jaan! Normally I don’t work like that. I at least take 2-3 months in between films. I didn’t get that much time to prepare. I read just one book, Urvashi Butalia’s ‘The other side of silence’. I didn’t get much time to research it beyond that. Also, I know partition through history books, through other films and documentaries. So, it was the script, my conversations with the director and finally my understanding which helped me create Begum Jaan.
How significant do you think the film is in the present times?
Begum Jaan is such a film which is significant today, will be significant 20 years later, it will be significant 50 years later because people get evicted from their houses all the time. Here it is a political divide. Sometimes there are lines drawn within families. So, it could be about anyone, for instance, a builder wanting to build a mall and evicting the residents. It could be anyone’s story that just happens to be the story of 11 women. Also, sex workers are almost discounted, who we don’t even count amongst the mainstream. We see them as fringe elements. They are marginalised within the marginalised sections of society. It’s interesting that Srijit chose to set this story in a brothel in the times of partition.
Do you fear being compared to Rituparna Sengupta, which has already begun?
(Laughs) Thankfully I don’t read anything so I am not aware of any comparison. Srijit told me but I think that was bound to happen. After all, it’s the same film and we are playing the same character. So it’s okay. And it’s good because I feel happy at being compared to an actor who has given such a brilliant performance!
You were not allowed to wear make-up and even do waxing or threading during the shoot. Did you feel uncomfortable?
I have done no make-up roles far too many times, so that doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I think make-up is after all, a tool that you use to create a character, just like costumes. I didn’t thread my eyebrows for a while. That was a bit strange because I actually have a unibrow.
So the unibrow which you wear in the film is your natural?
Yes! It’s not very thick but it’s there. While I have threaded it all my life, for this film I actually let it grow out. At times I felt like just plucking it out. (Laughs) Besides that, I was okay with everything else.
You started your career with the Bengali film Bhalo Theko. You have essayed a Bengali in films like Parineeta, Kahaani and more and now you are working in a Hindi adaptation of a Bengali film. What are your plans of working in Bengali films?
I get offered Bengali films almost every year but nothing has worked out so far. Conversations keep happening with Arindam Sil, who I know very well. But we have not decided on what to do. I recently met Bumba da (Prosenjit Chatterjee) we discussed the same thing and I told him, ‘Let’s find a story!’ When I find the right story, I’ll do it.
What is your next film after Begum Jaan?
Tumhari Sulu. I’ll start working on it soon after Begum Jaan releases. I play a late night radio jockey in the film. I am reading other scripts as well but have not said yes to anything else as of now.
What are the chances of another film in the Kahaani series?
None as of now. Sujoy Ghosh toh gayab hi ho gaya hai (Sujoy Ghosh has gone missing)! (Laughs) I don’t know whether he is in Kolkata or Mumbai and I haven’t spoken to him since I have also been busy with promotions. The last time we spoke, he was in Kolkata.