Point of View - Priti Bakalkar reviews Ekjute's 'Begum Jaan'

Begum Jaan

I had a dry spell as regards watching plays for last two months. There were a lot of shows which I had marked as “I want to watch” but could not be watched for some reason or the other. So finally, when the Good Friday week-end came I booked myself for Begum Jaan which was being played at Prithvi as a part of Ekjute Festival. Thankfully, I had booked online because the show was completely sold out! Apparently, so was the later show!!

Begum Jaan, is a simple story of this extremely famous classical singer of yesteryear (popularly known as “Begum Jaan” played by Nadira Zaheer Babbar) and her twenty something grand-daughter Zarina (Juhi Babbar) and journalist Sanjay Pande (Anup Soni) who wants to write Begum Jaan’s biography. and the interpersonal relationship of these three characters. It also makes a comment in passing on the politics of pre-independence and post-independence India.

Begum Jaan, being a classical singer from Lucknow (and of course, Javed Siddiqi being the writer), the language of the play was heavy on Urdu. In spite of my few lessons in Urdu many years back I found it a little difficult to keep up with what was being said; especially when Begum Jaan commented on the India during pre-independence times and the difference in political leadership now and then. I felt that the commentary was not relevant to the context of this story so it felt very superficial to me in spite of the strong words which wowed a lot of audience members.

It was very interesting to watch how this iconic singer who had been a witness to glory and fame is living a life of anonymity but yet hasn't lost her sense of humour. She is proud of her achievement and does not regret anything in her past. She is slightly bitter but not about her own state of affairs but about the downfall of the values and the lack of political will in the Country. She is one of those rock solid people who can find a way through any difficulty - a true independent woman. It was joy to watch Nadira Babbar reminiscing about the bygone era, worrying about her granddaughter’s future and holding her ground to the various attempts of Sanjay to get a catch hold of the controversial letters. She was loving, cunning, charming, scheming, entertaining but above all she was Begum Jaan. It was completely her show.

However, Juhi Babbar as the daughter felt a little mis-cast. Anup Soni has been one of my favourite TV actors but watching him on stage was painful. Actually, watching both of them on stage was painful. Someone needs to tell them that on stage a scene is not made of “shots”. There was one classic freeze moment towards the end of the play when Zarina is reprimanding Sanjay. She tells Sanjay something to the effect that even if she is penniless, she has her self-respect and wisdom gained from her grandmother. It is a beautiful line. But when she “delivered” her line and held the “pose”, I felt like screaming “cut” from my seat. Nevertheless, her transformation from indifference towards Sanjay to falling in love with him to indifference again was interesting. So also, whenever she shared space with Nadira Babbar, they exuded warmth of the grandmother-granddaughter relationship.

There were a few glitches but there is one thing which I really want to mention. I have seen this in many other productions also and I just do not understand why such small things are not taken care of. I mean you are taking pains about detailing of the set, costumes, the language, the dialect then why can you not serve water in a glass when you mean to be serving water or for that matter tea / coffee? Why the glass or the cup is empty?!!! There was a scene between Juhi and Anup where Juhi goes to serve water to him and he turns suddenly towards her. It gives a start to her and she almost drops the glass. Now, if there was water in the glass, it would have spilt on her and may be it would have lead to another scene altogether (if you know what I mean!). But nothing happened because there was no water in the glass!!

The best thing I loved about this show was the set. It was really a beautiful two level set showing the glory that once the place had seen. And of course, the music! A lot of old classical pieces were played during the show which was deeply appreciated by connoisseurs of classical music in the audience. At times the play became very melodramatic but the humour in the script has kept it from becoming tragic.

All said and done, Begum Jaan, undoubtedly, is a sincere attempt to appreciate all those artists who have enriched our lives with their talent. It is for those artists this play makes it a must watch.