As a historian, I often find myself attuned to the problem of narrative itself - the specificity of voice, location, and accessibility. After spending four years immersed in theory about how history is written and deployed, particularly in the South Asian context (a framework unavoidably intertwined with the rise of English empire-building), I find myself unable to look at any representation of the past and its subjects in quite the same way. Within that politics, the question of the marginalized is raised, and how one can make an attempt towards uncovering silenced voices in the ongoing construction of the past. As I try and find ways to merge my two interests - the study of history and my love for the cinema - I find myself constantly aware of these issues. Shyam Benegal's revisionist "biography" Zubeidaa: The Story of a Princess (2001) fits nicely alongside Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) and Mira Nair's Vanity Fair (2004) as films that explore this issue in relation to "India" and its not-so-recent transition towards independence. In the former film, Gowariker turns his eye to a group of village peasants who revolt in their own special way against the British raj (not violently with swords, but passionately with cricket bats), while Nair ingeniously re-inserts the story of colonialism alongside Thackery's epic novel about class hierarchy and greed during the Napoleonic wars. All three films have been extremely invaluable resources for my work in exploring these themes, and I hope to present my "findings" in a scholarly/academic medium at some point in the future.
Shyam Benegal's film, penned by screenwriter Khalid Mohamed as a tribute to his late mother, is equally subversive in making an absolute claim towards authenticity. Mirroring her son Riyaz's quest to "find" his mother in tattered remnants of oral and written history, we are constantly aware that we are not seeing Zubeidaa as she really was. She has now entered the realm of myth and what person can explain on conclusive terms who this woman was? Celebrated by some as an actress and cursed by others who saw her as a traitor to her position, by the end of the film we are left with more questions than answers. Zubeidaa forms the third chapter in an unofficial trilogy created by Benegal and Mohamed that began in 1993 with Mammo. The second film, Sardari Begum (1996), has little to do with this family, but the cinematic bookends specifically chronicle Mohamed's early life growing up without a mother. Part fairy-tale, part homage, the final installment Zubeidaa draws on several sources to weave together a complex story - the woman's diary, relatives' reminiscing and even archival documents that have been confiscated as a result of a cover-up. As the title character Zubeidaa is "seen" through various perspectives, Benegal and Mohamed offer us an endless list of possibilities about who she was, and why she left behind only shame and controversy for those who knew her.
The existing "facts" known about Mohamed's mother are these few: Zubeidaa was born sometime in the 1930s into a position of great wealth and influence, the daughter of a powerful film industry mogul. After dabbling in Hindi-language cinema in small roles and a failed marriage that produced solely one son (Khalid Mohamed himself, or his stand-in "Riyaz" in the film), she quickly captured the attention of a Hindu Rajput prince. Much to the anger of her father, who consequently disowned her, the Muslim-born Zubeidaa wed the the Maharaja of Jodhpur and moved into his palace in Gujurat as his second wife (he is the ruler of Fatehpur in Utter Pradesh in the film.) Tragically, both Zubeidaa and her husband soon were killed in a mysterious air plane crash that wiped her record clean from the royal family's history books altogether. Due to her disinheritance from both her own family and her in-laws', the specifics of Zubeidaa's life have been largely rendered invisible over the decades. Consequently, Mohamed spent his formative years raised by his grandmother and thirsting for concrete knowledge about his biological mother, and the reason why she seemingly abandoned him. This film is the result of that period of research and inquiry.
Working as an investigative journalist in the early 1980s, Riyaz (played by Benegal regular Rajit Kapoor) draws upon many sources to piece together a fabric detailing his mother's life. Zubeidaa's elderly mother (character actress Surekha Sikri-Rege, another Benegal favourite) refuses to divulge any information to her grandson, while others such as Zubeidaa's dance instructor (Shakti Kapoor, in an amusing cameo) and her father's mistress Rose (Monsoon Wedding's Lillete Dubey) are not so reluctant to revisit that period in their lives. Perhaps Riyaz's most valuable source of information is provided by the prince's first wife, Mandira Devi, who retains mixed feelings about her rival-friend but may provide the key to his biggest questions. Throughout the film, Benegal's editors Avinash Walzade and Praveen Angre artfully move back and forth across concurrent timelines without any glaring hiccups in the difficult transitions, achieving moments of tapestry-like brilliance. By drawing on a several number of perspectives, the film consequently asks its audience to reconsider how we ourselves remember, filter and etch the past. The plot is not exactly Rashoman-like in its trajectory, but there is a definite sense that each character adds various textures and layers to the tale. Yet as Riyaz draws closer and closer to the cover-up regarding his mother's life and unresolved passing, there is still an open-ended element to the closing scenes. Although one suspects Mohamed has his own opinion about his mother's suspicious death, there is room to see it from many different angles. Just as every participant has a particular spin on Zubeidaa as a character, veering from outright denial of her existence to loving and fond remembrances of her fiery personality, we as the audience are encouraged to form our own conclusions.
The film is also aware of its post-colonial context; the Rajput princes are faced with a dilemma in the wake of independence from imperial England. What is their place as antiquated aristocratic rulers in a country increasingly calling for democratic principles and voting rights of the people? The Union government in Delhi is posited against the Rajput coalition of royalty, who wish to retain their status as a clan of rulers. Zubeidaa's husband, Maharaja Vijayendra "Victor" Singh, is confident in trusting his farmer subjects to support him as a representative in the new state apparatus, while his fellow kings push for the autonomy of their own states. Benegal is also quick to point out that this discussion was largely held between men in elevated positions of power; it is no convenient plot point that Zubeidaa demands to be part of the political process herself. That India's narrative of decolonization is one "written" by an elite male subjectivity is significant; agency and ability is clearly restricted a privileged few. The issue of Zubeidaa's religious background is also of particular note; it is perhaps no surprise that the prince's family was rather eager to erase her identity from the record books. That Muslim-Hindu tensions are just as pronounced today speaks to the debate over her position as Rajput Hindu royalty. Partition itself is one of the reasons for the breakdown of Zubeidaa's first marriage, as her former in-laws decide to leave India for the Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Benegal's attention to period is masterful; barring some funny anachronisms littered throughout, the film looks as though it could have been produced during Bollywood's golden age. Often in period pieces, there is more effort placed upon providing eye candy than staying true to the time and setting (see 2002's Devdas remake.) Thankfully, art/set directors Narendra Rahurikar and Ravi Chauhan expertly support the era recreation, diversely furnishing decrepit shacks and ornate palaces alike without drawing attention to their work. The costume designers' creations are divine (by Mitali Dutta and Regina Pius); every tailor-made sari is worthy of notice, and Kapoor has never looked more majestic on-screen. Rajan Kothari's cinematography is always aware of characters as well as their surroundings, avoiding the most obvious moments to capture close-ups and instead keeping a distance when necessary. The makeup team does a marvelous job contrasting youthful exuberance and the physical marks of experience that come along with age and experience. But the true standout here is the haunting musical score by A.R. Rahman; each song is memorable, despite being utilized strictly in the background (only one song - "Dheeme Dheeme", celebrating Zubeidaa's newfound romance - is played out in its entirety.) Rahman's soundtrack overall is a masterpiece in itself - it has been in continuous play on my music player over the past few years and will likely continue to be in the future. It too seems like it was written decades ago, easily comparable to the likes of Naushad, who provided the industry with standard-setting tracks from the 1940s onwards.
Karisma Kapoor, just off her searing performance the year before in Khalid Mohamed's own earnest-but-spotty directorial debut Fiza (2000), proved to the Bollywood industry once again that she had more to her than playing romantic afterthoughts in candy-floss commercial fare. As the title character, Kapoor is able to play upon the various shades each participant in the narrative has brought to light - her childish stubbornness, the heartbreak she felt at leaving behind Riyaz, and her refusal to stay within the boundaries drawn around her as a daughter, wife and princess. Although Zubeidaa features a stellar ensemble of character actors, Kapoor manages to remain the focal point of the film throughout. Coupled with her work in Fiza, the performance is Kapoor's most impressive to date; the actress soon went into semi-retirement after a highly-publicized marriage and divorce, but hopefully she will appear in a film of this caliber again in her still-young career. The film also features three excellent supporting performances by female actors, the most impressive being Surekha Sikri-Rege's. As Zubeidaa's mother Fayyazi, Sikri-Rege is sympathetic as a conflicted mother in the flashback scenes, and marvelously cantankerous as a crotchety old woman in the "present". Equally good is Lillete Dubey as an actress past her prime; the juxtaposition between her youthful years as a friend to Zubeidaa, and her fate as a sad cat lady is striking to say the least.
Rekha is appropriately evasive as Victor's first wife; the actress seems to smartly mask her true feelings behind a dedication to proper etiquette and formality. Just as Riyaz seems on edge while interviewing her about his mother, we feel equally torn about this woman's motivations and alliances. Manoj Bajpai is charming as the Maharaja; the prince is clearly devoted to Zubeidaa, but still regards her as decorative property. The actor is able to draw out both of these characteristics, sketching a three-dimensional figure as opposed to fulfilling a mere plot device. The late Amrish Puri does as expected in his portrayal of Suleiman Seth, having now carved a niche in Bollywood playing domineering, abusive fathers; however, there are a few moments where the actor hints at regret for his harmful decisions regarding Zubeidaa's life. Rajit Kapoor only appears in a few scenes as the adult Riyaz, but is entirely believable as a intuitive, intelligent young man able to see through manipulative agendas in his quest for the truth. Other bit parts are filled in by Benegal regulars such as Seema Bhargava as Riyaz's loving childhood nurse Zainab, and Ravi Jhankar as Victor's corrupt brother who round out the cast. Worthy of special mention is Farida Jalal, who briefly reprises her role from Benegal's Mammo in this film as Fayyazi's sister who attends Zubeidaa's first wedding.
This production is admittedly an anomaly of sorts; it's not quite the hard-hitting Indian "parallel cinema" Benegal is typically known and acclaimed for. And despite its musical numbers by maestro A.R. Rahman and the casting of Kapoor in the title role, it's not a full-out Bollywood production either (its poor performance at the box office is surely proof of that, despite winning a National Award for Best Picture in the Hindi language.) As such, it exists in another space altogether, which makes it one of the most exciting cinematic ventures to emerge from India in the new millennium. Although I am usually reluctant to label anything a "feminist" piece due to the multiplicity of definitions attributed to that word, it's impossible to overlook the complexity of Zubeidaa's characterization here. She is not a perfect figure; she is prone to impulsiveness, to impatience and selfishness, but she is nonetheless endearing in her flaws and shortcomings. Her demands to be seen as more than a trophy wife are quite advanced for her time, and she gives a voice to those women who refused to remain silent in an era and culture that called for their complete omission from men's dealings (politics, money, and household decision-making.)
One of the film's most devastating sequences depicts Zubeidaa's first marriage as Rahman's cheerful "Mendhi Hai Rachnewali" (a song celebrating marriage and familial harmony) ironically plays over the desperate proceedings. Despite her ongoing resistance to apply henna to her hands and agree to the match forged by her father, she is forced to go through with the alliance. As the mullah asks repeatedly for her assent as per the specifics of the Islamic marriage nikaah ceremony, she remains chillingly silent as the crowd uncomfortably looks on. Her defiant glare from beneath her beautiful gold-threaded headdress is breathtaking in its non-conformity. Her father Suleiman Seth obnoxiously accepts the proposal on her behalf, but Zubeidaa never bows down to this aggressive attempt to control her, always true to her insistence on doing things on her own terms. A