A brothel can be the ideal hotbed for thumris and khayals – proof that the sex workers would have chosen an artistic career if they could.
In Srijit Mukherji’s 1947-set drama Begum Jaan (a remake of his 2015 Bengali hit Rajkahini), Vidya Balan plays a madam who steadfastly follows her early morning riyaaz with a tanpura. The setting demands the unimpeded flow of raags and the largesse of patrons. Composer Anu Malik and lyricist Kausar Munir rush through the soundtrack, denying it the gravitas the character deserves.
The lugubrious tune of Prem Mein Tohre is sung by Asha Bhosle in a halting cadence that suits her aged voice. She breaks the slow tempo with an animated stanza about a girl peeping through curtains and expressing her impatience with living in purdah. Bhonsle’s rendition lacks vitality. The impishness that she exuded in popular tunes like Rangeela Re and Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Main is missing in her wobbly vocal flourishes. Kavita Seth’s reprise works better – the energy is palpable in her stentorian voice.
Kalpana Patowary and Altamash Faridi sing O Reh Kaharo, about a bride asking the porters to lower the palanquin in which she is travelling. The sweeping melody is embellished with Munir’s evocative poetry, “Takiye pe tere taare bichhaye, chaand yeh tere liye thumriyan gaaye” (I have spread stars on your pillow, the moon sings a thumri for you). Malik’s immersive orchestration gives the tune a grand sound that eclipses its delicate words.
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In Azaadiyan, Malik pairs the high-pitched Rahat Fateh Ali Khan with the equally octave-friendly Sonu Nigam. The shrill, echoing sound that is achieved through the commingling of their combined vocals is nothing short of a jingoistic racket.
Shreya Ghoshal and Anmol Malik’s duet, Holi Khelein, is a fast-tempo thumri high on bhang. Its jerky electronic sounds don’t compliment the staid lyrics. Malik should have stuck with the traditional Indian tabla and other percussive instruments that provide the thrilling crescendo in the end.
The two elegiac Rekha Bhardwaj tracks, Jiye Maane Na and Saanson Se from Rajkahini (2015), could have been retained in Begum Jaan. Her sonorous voice lends itself beautifully to the unsung emotions of sex workers who are gussying up for the evening’s unwelcome suitors.