(Hindi and English dialogue)
A”Citizen Kane”-style bio about a famous thumari singer who is accidentally killed and the journalist who unravels the woman’s past, “Sardari Begum” boasts excellent production values and some gorgeous classical Urdu music. Ultimately, however, the unremarkable life of the central character renders pic tedious and uninteresting. Latest feature from one of India’s most venerated filmmakers, Shyam Benegal, seems unlikely to travel much beyond Indian and Pakistani borders.
Based on a true story, film opens with the accidental death of the title character (Kiron Kher) when she is struck by a stone during rioting outside her Delhi home. Ambitious Tribune reporter Tehzeeb Abbasi (Rajeshwari Sachdev) attends the singer’s funeral as part of an assignment to uncover the Muslim-Hindu conflicts that prompted the incident. But discovering that the late woman was her aunt, Tehzeeb convinces her editor/lover to assign her a lengthy article on Begum.
Through interviews with Begum’s friends and relatives, Tehzeeb traces the singer’s life. Young Sardari (Smriti Mishra) loves music, but after her father prohibits her from singing in public, she runs away to the house of her aunt, only to be told to go home. She then turns to a rich Muslim patron, Hemraj Sahib (Amrish Puri), and becomes his mistress, much to Mrs. Sahib’s chagrin. While singing in her benefactor’s home, Sardari meets Sadiq Musvi (Rajit Kapur), who eventually marries her despite the fact that Sardari is pregnant with Hemraj’s child.
Acting as her manager, Sadiq manages to get Sardari a recording contract. For many years Sardari is successful, but she must suffer her husband’s philandering. As her moodiness and unwillingness to sing popular tunes begin to jeopardize her career, Sardari pressures her daughter, Sakina, to sing, resulting in a disastrous public concert at which the girl is humiliated by her mother’s fans.
Unfortunately, Begum’s life is both melodramatic and not particularly compelling. Narrative is jerky, with English dialogue thrust around unnecessarily, while several scenes, such as a final dinner gathering, come across as awkward and forced.
Still, Kher is brilliant in her debut as the difficult and bitchy Sardari, and veteran Puri is convincing as the driveling Svengali. Less persuasive is Sachdev as the journalist overwrought by dilemmas from all sides.
Tech credits are adequate, with a special mention to Sanjay Dharankar’s crisp and colorful lens work.