Begin by Netflix chronicles the journey of a renowned singer battling his inner demons. The film has a wonderful cast of Tripti Dimri, Babil Khan, Swastika Mukherjee and Varun Grover. A strained relationship with her mother and a dark past have made success taste like a sting for Qala, the remnants of the love she never receives. Tenderness and violence are constant in this film by Anvitaa Dutt.
In the film, a mother sings to her young daughter “Why do you look so sad?” The girl replies that a singing peacock in the forest stole her dreams. We’ll take a gun and kill the peacock, said the mother. No, we mustn’t, said the girl, we’ll just shut him up, lock him in a cage.
It’s a discussion of mother-daughter relationships, trauma, sexism, and mental health issues. Audiences hail the film for a realistic portrayal of an emotionally abusive parent and their psychosocial feminism.
We first encounter Qala, essentially as a beam of light reflecting off her golden disc. This seems to be the height of his success and his dreams, but soon we are faced with reality. The press is only interested in the love life of a successful singer, solely because of her gender.
From the outset, the public shows ignorance about women’s mental health. Qala holds the skin of her arm away from the prying eyes of the press, talking about her mother and her “brother.” The first thing Urmila learns about her daughter is that she absorbed her twin brother’s nutrition in her mother’s womb. It gives the audience hope that she might not have been so distant and pathologically demanding. Urmila is a mother of duty, not of love.
Even Urmila’s demands come from ignorance about mental health and sexism. It’s a time when male musicians are ‘Pandits’ but their female counterparts are reduced to ‘Bai’ (courtesans, as if that’s a bad thing). Therefore, Qala’s gender becomes an obstacle. Qala’s mother’s grandfather was a famous thumri singer, which made her sacrifice her dreams because it was unacceptable for a woman to carry the inheritance. She raises Qala with little affection, in a gothic mansion, to become the voice of her Gharana.
The visuals of Begin hauntingly shows the protagonist’s plea for mental help. Apparitions appear in mirrors as his mental state plummets. It is difficult to distinguish reality from hallucination. A party becomes spooky, Black Swan-esque wings before an unfortunate event. An insect flies into one eye. A silver ball of mercury is a visual rhyme with a drop of water, which becomes shiny drops, which become sleeping pills. There is a transition between Qala standing under the spotlight in the snow and her first studio recording. During a later recording, at the crescendo of her depression, she imagines the studio filling with snow.
Jagan is everything she wants to be for her mother’s sake. His failure, compared to hers, haunts her. Begin is a feminist psychodrama, which deals with the roles prescribed to women and their limits.
Qala is discouraged from becoming her torchbearer gharaana. Her mother refuses to let her sing in movies or in front of filmmakers because “good” women don’t. Naseeban Apa is a self-shamed and gossiped music composer. After becoming a gold-listed playback singer, she must fight to be paid as much as the male singer. Qala hires a woman as a secretary, but only after arguing with a man. Qala feels safe and understood by women. She invites a female journalist and photographer to interview and photograph her.
The men she chooses or must succumb to continue exploiting her, except Jagan. The producers exploit and demean her, and the decent lyricist, Majrooh, turns a blind eye to the exploitation. A telling scene sees a doctor called in to check on Qala after a breakdown. He considers it a “ladies’ problem”, a case of acute artistic sensibility.
Hysteria was a common diagnosis given to women in the 20th century. Because if she’s not feeling well mentally, she’s definitely “crazy” because of the “hormones.” Medicine is also a sexist trend towards women. Medical research is biased and often ignores women, drugs and diagnostics are aimed at men and avoid women. She asks him to prescribe sleeping pills. “Aap sochna band kijiye (stop thinking),” he advises.
The film, however, sensitively explores mental health without creating villains. As Qala is consumed by childhood trauma, her mother fails to break the cycle of patriarchy. We also see a young Jagan struggling with his deteriorating mental health after losing his voice.
In one of the most haunting scenes, Jagan tells Qala how scared he is after losing his voice. “Andar kuch toot gaya hai”, he said showing his heart, before saying, “Kul sab kuch theek ho jaayega”. Begin is a beacon of hope that mental health narratives are changing.
In one of many lines that stay with you, Majrooh urges Qala to fight the cycle of abuse and says – Daur badlega, daur ki yeh purani adaat hain (time will change, time has an old habit of doing so).
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