In the scene that sets up the Bengali film Rajkahini’s central conflict, four men stand on a hilltop between Haldibari and Debiganj in Bengal, a few weeks after the partition of India and Pakistan. These are two government officials and two policemen, one each from India and Pakistan. “What’s that,” one asks, pointing to a lone house in the countryside before them “That”, comes the reply, “is Begum Jaan's brothel.” Written and directed by national award winner Srijit Mukherji, Rajkahini is about a crisis facing the brothel: the post-partition border passes through that brothel and its residents, mostly prostitutes, resist the two government officials' attempts to evict them from their home so they can erect a barbed wire fence in its stead.
The film pits a community of eleven women living in Begum Jaan's brothel against the male domination of two emerging states. With a hoarse throat and a heavy hand Begum Jaan, played by Bengali cinema’s old hand Rituparna Sengupta, rules over a group of eight young women—one of whom has a daughter—and an elderly lady, Kamal Thamma (Lily Chakravarty). None of these women is willing to part with their home, despite being threatened with humiliation and violence—though what exactly motivates them remains unclear till the end. Also living with them are two men: the pimp Sujan (Rudranil Ghosh) and the guard Salim (Nigel Akkara). Another, a man called “Master,” regularly comes to visit with educational materials for the little girl.
Their opponents are two childhood friends, Ilias (Kaushik Sen) and Prophullo (Saswata Chatterjee). Now the local representatives of the new countries of Pakistan and India, Ilias and Prophullo must pretend to be adversaries enforcing the dividing line between their countries. Both seem to abhor violence, but goad each other into an escalation that ends in hired goons attacking the brothel to drive out its inhabitants. “You mean those people standing there are in one country,” Begum Jaan asks Ilias and Prophullo when they first bring the eviction order, pointing at the women on the far side of the courtyard, “And we are another?” A pause. The whole group then bursts into laughter at the absurdity of the proposition, leaving the two men taken aback.
Releasing across India on 6 November 2015, Mukherji’s film was flanked by a remarkably visible marketing campaign in West Bengal. When Rajkahini's slick trailer went online in August, anticipation flooded through my social media feeds, as friends from both West Bengal and Bangladesh gushed over it. The film—the trailer suggested—would be a glossy period piece. The scenes depicted the residents of the brothel wearing closely wound saris and wielding guns to defend their home, evocative of edgy, alternative history films such as Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! or Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds. In the promotion leading up to the release, Mukherji called it his “lifetime script” and that he hoped that it would help the younger generation learn about partition. In a tweet, producer and director Mahesh Bhatt called it “the most relevant film of the times we live in,” and announcing that he will be remaking Rajkahini in Bollywood.