Rajkahini is a fictionalised historical drama that spells out an unique version of what happened to a group of women in a pocket within Rajshahi District (now in Bangladesh) during the application of the Radcllife line in August 1947, dividing India into India and East Pakistan, after Sir Cyril Radcliffe appointed by the British Government defined the line and it was put into action. This line had to pass through an old mansion that was home to eleven prostitutes of different ages and backgrounds and they put up a fight with arms against those who came to destroy the mansion, plant the wooden poles and mark the divided areas with barbed wire.
Rajkahini is a small, imaginary segment of the world today filled with barbed wires marking out refugees who had to leave their homes to nowhere. Currently, according to a UN Report, there are some 43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees who have fled their countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict inside their own homelands — so-called “internally displaced people”. Within this ambience, Rajkahini that elaborates on the history of refugees created during the creation of a new India and a New Pakistan, defines a reminder that forced displacement of human beings is not a new phenomenon in the world.
The inmates of the brothel represent a world in miniature or an undivided India before August 15 1947. Rituparna Sengupta playing Begun Jaan, who is apparently Muslim, gives perhaps the most outstanding performance of her career stripped of her starry airs and heavy make-up and costumes she uses in mainstream films as artillery. The old madam (Lily Chakraborty) appears to be Hindu, is educated and reads out to the smaller girls in the brothel, from good books and also from Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini. But the parallels between the Abanindranath novel for children and the film seem forced. More forced are the lengthy meetings and dialogues between and among Lord Mountbatten, Sir Cyril Radcliffe and one meeting with Nehru and Jinaah in attendance to discuss the manifestations and strategies of the Radcliffe Line, which are redundant and add needlessly to the long footage. Lectures and meetings tend to detract from the tragedy and threat to the eleven sex workers who have no clue to their next home. Much of these deliberations are likely to go over the heads of the mass audience. The changing of guards at Attari and Wagah border in contemporary times that the film opens with is also irrelevant, clipped and cut as they are from DVDs of the Change of Guards programme with blurred visuals. What made Mukherji contemporize the story remains a mystery.
Among the other girls is the beautiful teenager (Riddhima Ghosh) who does not have a single word to utter through the entire film but makes a shocking impact with her explosive silence. Taking off from the Manto short story, in the opening scenes, when her father comes to fetch her in a refugee camp, she sits up, unties the strings of her pyjamas, and spreads her legs. She has internalised rape so deeply into her system that even the father appears as a potential rapist! Begum Jaan tries to protect her from being violated but is forced to give in when Badshah demands her services as the newest girl. Two of the girls are adivasis (Sohini Sarkar and Shaoni Ghosh) who wear white saris hitched up above their knees and speak is their local dialects. Begun Jaan speaks impeccable Hindi and also Bengali which is quite confusing because she is basically from Bengal. Another intriguing feature is her talent at singing beautiful thumris which raises the question – why is she then a prostitute and a madam and not a courtesan?
Another beautiful girl, (Priyanka Sarkar), apparently a Brahmin, is a vegetarian who sometimes seeks pleasure in masturbation. Another (Sudipta Chakraborty) keeps dissuading her growing daughter Bunchki who wants to play with her and does not want to listen to historical and mythological stories from the ‘grandmother.’ Rubina (Parno Mitra) is cleverly manipulated by the diabolic Master (Abir Chatterjee) who moves in and out of the brothel playing a social worker but actually aspiring to traffic a girl or two. Rubina falls victim to his charms and is trafficked by him. One of the most beautiful girls (Joya Hassan) is in love with the pimp Sujan (Rudraneel Ghosh) while another very young girl (Ena Saha) is an also ran. Srijit has cleverly used his brothel to dot the film with ample skin show and sex scenes that is one too many but may be a crowd-puller.
Begum Jaan, who heads the brothel with a pimp and Salim, a bodyguard-cum-security man (Nigel Akkara) is shocked when her main Babu (patron-customer) backs out of rescuing her and her girls from this crisis. The brothel keeps two very skinny and skeletal dogs looked after by Salim and their role in the story form a dramatic twist in the tale. A cache of arms someone had left behind is called to action and the girls and women train in wielding the lathi and the guns in preparation for the final fight against any attempt to destroy the abode. The two officers appointed to oversee the execution, Iliyas (Koushik Sen), representing the Muslim League and Mr Sen (Saswata Chatterjee), representing the Indian National Congress, are childhood friends whose friendship is threatened by the hate generated through the Partition. This is portrayed beautifully by the two actors, the script and the cinematography that focusses on large close-ups of half of the two faces, the other halves hidden by antique lamps suggesting the impact of Partition on friendship polluted and corrupted by the newly born communal conflict and the hatred it triggers between two communities.
The soft empathy of Iliyas surrenders to the ruthlessness of Mr Sen, who uses illegal means to throw out the sex workers. He hires Kabir (Jisshu Sengupta) and his goons to push them out with terror tactics. Srijit has deconstructed the chocolate boy looks of Jisshu by giving him a make-over as Kabir, who wears the Brahmin sacred thread yet proclaims he is also circumcised so faith does not bother him. Wearing a curly wig, stained teeth, a red, elongated bindi dotting his forehead and a dirty, loin-like cloth covering him, Jisshu does a complete about turn and gives the most magnificient performance of his career.
Rajatava Dutta as Badshah is relatively a tame version of the regular Babu. Kanchan Mullick as the brutal police officer Sashi is very good but his is not a convincing characterization when compared with stories one has read and heard of real life Indian police officers under the British Government. His shocking reaction when little Bunchki strips in front of him remains unexplained. Mukherji has fleshed out the character of Master with an against-the-grain performance of Abir Chatterjee, who is a true-blooded villain wearing a kind face.
Avik Mukherjee’s camera caressingly moves into long shots to establish the presence of the haveli that strike emotional notes later on. The siennas, the rusts, the browns, the ochres and the ambers enrich the texture of the film with the datedness it demands and underlines the tragedy of a forgotten phase of the Partition story – untold, invisible and unsung. His camera wanders across butcher shops in the middle of the night, the flaming fires in the distance when the mansion goes up in flames, or when the walking fire, once called Salim Mirza, cries for help and Begum Jaan shoots him down till the last scene when Begun Jaan pulls close the massive doors of the haveli shutting the world outside forever. The ‘discussion’ scenes are depicted mostly in Black-and-White to suggest that these are backgrounders to what happens in the foreground. The musical score sometimes dominates the scenario with its loud pitch instead of supporting the visuals and the narrative. The same applies to the sound design – too loud at too many places where muted sounds would have driven the point home better. The editing, except in the opening frames, is really good. The reference to Rani Padmini and her Jauhar with hundreds of Rajasthani women jumping into a well of fire does not work at all. It is the acting of the entire cast of around 20 and more performers that forms the high point of the film.
Rajkahini is more a character-driven story than a history-driven one because the ‘history’ in the film is quite diluted, colored and manipulated with imagination and fiction. The film will make for more intensive viewing if clipped by at least forty minutes. The bharata bhagya bidhata choice is creative but does not really add to the film’s core. If one takes Rajkahini as a character-driven fiction film, it is really watch-worthy because it has some of the best performances in recent times by a repertory of some of the most outstanding actors in Bengali cinema. So please do not go looking for history in any form in this film. But it is certainly Srijit Mukherji’s most ambitious and original film till date.
Bengali/Drama/Color and B&W