If a movie review could be summed up in an equation, then a review for Shyam Bengal's movie Sardari Begum (1996) could perhaps be written Sardari Begum (1996) = Mandi (1983) + Bhumika (1977)!
The recurrence of themes, often in elaborately dressed up forms, in an auteur's oeuvre is hardly unusual. It is certainly something mathematicians and musicians exhibit in their work, and, as I've pointed out before with the example of Benegal, so also do movie directors. What makes life interesting for the consummate reviewer, is the process of teasing out these points of continuity when the director shifts the context, the time-period, the geographic locale, and other aspects of the tale he is spinning.
As if to really drive the point home, the subject Benegal chooses to depict in Sardari Begum, she herself, is an exponent of the thumri-dadra style of singing - in which the musical connoisseur is challenged by the singer to discover and then latch on to the basic musical theme in the presented piece - which the singer, having brought out briefly, proceeds to hide in an almost infinitely elaborated (and sometimes discordant) countertheme. The elaborated countertheme takes up most of the performance, and becomes a musical maze. In the best performances, the theme initially hinted at is embedded into the countertheme in progressively longer subpieces, and as with a complex fugue, appears as a subtheme within the countertheme, when the latter has been fully elaborated. Both lyrical and alyrical styles are possible. At the highest level of the art, the entire musical piece embeds two sets of lyrics, each telling a separate story, but when the countertheme has reached its climax of elaboration, abruptly returns to the initial storyline in the initial theme with the first set of lyrics appearing in logical continuity with the counterthematic lyrics. Thus one doesn't know whether the singer is simply elaborating the countertheme or has returned to the original theme. Or at least, only the true aficionado would be able to tell, or so the singer hopes. Sometimes the singer assists in the process by hiring an ingenue to sing the theme in a different voice (e.g. soprano) compared to her own mezzo soprano, for example. Occasionally, an older younger pair of female singers can have the older woman in noticeable bass voice.
Benegal adopts the thumri-dadra as both the literal and the symbolic motif in Sardari Begum. Just as the naif is unable to tell what is really happening in a thumri-dadra performance - whether it is the theme, or the countertheme, proceeding to the climax or anticlimax, and which set of lyrics is being proceeded toward or receded from - so also he embeds sub-sub-story within sub-story within story, as the character of the legendary Begum is slowly unwrapped for us. But to give the movie an even more compelling angle, the whole movie unfolds as a real news story that a reporter is writing on the death of Sardari Begum, and moreover, he gives it a Rashomon twist in that, as the reporter uncovers more and more of the story, she initially finds more and more contradictory information, which then, having reached an apogee of contradictions, slowly resolves itself, until it becomes a unified whole again, rather like a thumri-dadra piece, which, after introducing the initial theme, then proceeds to lose the naif in a counterthematic musical maze that nevertheless hides the initial theme within it!
Sardari Begum is a headstrong woman with a musical talent - exactly the way the Usha/Urvashi character in his earlier movie Bhumika was. Just as in Bhumika, Benegal traces out the full career of the Begum, as well as her involvements with different men. But whereas Usha/Urvashi was Hindu and the city she lives and works in is the Bombay of the 1930s-50s; the Begum is Muslim, and the city is first Agra and then Delhi, and one is given to understand that the time is the 1950s-90s. But other than that, the similarities in the lives of the Usha and the Begum are striking - the initial rebelliousness, the musical talent, the involvements with a series of men and their jealousies and attempts to use her; and the one daughter that both are finally left with. The Mandi component of Sardari Begum comes in the location of much of the action in a kothaa. Where the bai of the kothaa was played by Shabana Azmi in Mandi, Kiron Kher plays the adult Begum in a truly memorable performance which won her the National Film Award for Best Actress in 1997.
For someone, like myself, who has already seen Mandi and Bhumika, much of Sardari Begum will seem like familiar territory (I saw Mandi and Bhumika back in July, and Sardari Begum in December 2009). But Benegal made Sardari Begum about 13 years after he had made Mandi, and almost two decades after Bhumika. Thus, it is more like going back to a town you haven't been in for a long while - everything looks familiar, but many things have nevertheless changed. From among the old cast of characters he used in the 1970s-early 1980s, only Amrish Puri returns, to play the role of the old Rajput musical connoisseur who becomes the Begum's patron (and lover). This theme of (here symbolic) incest is also familiar from Mandi. And just as in Manthan Benegal had a character named 'Chandavarkar', he now has a character (a sound technician in the movie) called 'Balsaver', both being surnames of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, like Benegal himself. As the credits rolled off at the end of the movie, I seemed to spot a 'Balsaver' amongst the technician credits, perhaps in this case he uses an actor's real last name as the name of the character he plays (in addition, perhaps, to casting a real sound technician in the role of a sound technician in the movie!).
What is dramatically different between 1983 and 1996, as the by now standard narrative goes, is that India 'liberalized' its economy in 1991, bringing changes in social mores as well as new economic opportunities, especially for women. Meanwhile also, the religious right became politically powerful. Both developments underlie some of the premises of the movie - but since most of the action takes place in the pre-liberalization 1950s-1980s, the impact is seen only on one of its subplots - that involving the reporter whose attempt to uncover the details of the Begum's death frames the movie - and in the initial scene, where political parties of all stripes are seen spinning the story of the riot in which the Begum is accidentally killed.
The real pleasure in the movie, for me, came from its many musical pieces (sung by Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar, as well as one piece by Asha Bhonsle), and in its conception by Benegal as a cinematic thumri-dadra with a Rashomon twist. The movie is a tribute to both the art form and to one of its principal exponents, in every sense of the word, but as a production it seems more austere than almost every other Benegal movie I've seen so far, including his first, Ankur. In comparing with his earlier movies, however, I must say this one fell a little short, in my estimation, though it is still quite enjoyable, especially for its music.