Review: Umrao Jaan

Posted on November 5, 2006


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The Rekha-Muzaffar Ali version is still the definitive ‘Umrao Jaan’, but Aishwarya Rai and JP Dutta don’t embarrass themselves either.

NOV 5, 2006 – EVERY TIME A FILM OF Aishwarya Rai comes out, the nation gears up for a new sport: Bash Ash. We remark how plastic she is. How colourless she is. How she simpers. How she giggles. Mainly that: how she giggles. But to be fair to her, she’s been in the most awful lot of movies ever since you can remember – movies that you doubt Shabana Azmi could have risen above – and most of these were by directors who had no clue what to do with actors. Of course, you can argue that it’s an actor’s job to act, that it’s not the director’s job to make the actor act – but that’s why they have the phrase “director’s actorâ€?, and the history of cinema is full of stars who’ve done well under certain helmers and not so well under certain others. Still, the bar is set so low for an Aishwarya Rai picture – let alone an Aishwarya Rai performance – that when I began responding positively to her in (and as) Umrao Jaan, I started to wonder if it was because she was indeed good or because she wasn’t bad.

But I think it’s the former. I think Rai saw something of herself in the character of a woman who was renowned for her beauty, whose profession was entertainment, who lived her life in the unforgiving public eye, and who fell in love with the wrong men (one of whom is even played by Abhishek Bachchan). I mean… Hello! She’d just have to show up on the sets and that would be the performance. She looks lovely, she dances like a dream, and she even does creditably with those pesky Urdu dialogues. (Hey, you try pronouncing khuda in a way that the first syllable seems to emanate from the epiglottis!) What she can’t manage to do is dislodge Rekha from our minds as the definitive Umrao Jaan, but then no one quite manages to rise above their counterparts in the earlier version. Anu Malik’s score, for instance, is perfectly serviceable – and it certainly works better when seen in the context of the movie than as an audio-only experience – but it can’t hold a candle to Khayyam’s tunes, just as Alka Yagnik (billed as “the voice of Umrao Jaanâ€?) can’t measure up to Asha Bhosle. But then I didn’t really expect that this Umrao Jaan would accomplish all of that, so I wasn’t altogether disappointed with what it did end up doing.

What this Umrao Jaan ends up doing is add a few unfamiliar trappings to a familiar story about a woman blown this way and that by the winds of fate – and that’s mainly due to the character of Khanum (played with grand, scenery-chewing relish by Shabana Azmi), who runs the kotha that Umrao is sold into at a young age. Many people were wondering what a maker of such male-dominated films as LOC and Border saw in this decidedly female-skewing tale, but JP Dutta sees Khanum as the masculine presence in his movie. Oh, there are potential suitors for Umrao Jaan – macho studs like Abhishek Bachchan (as Nawab Sultan) and Suniel Shetty (miscast as Faiz) — but they come off as mere posers. Now Khanum – she’s the real deal. (She’s even referred to as Khanum sahab, not sahiba.) When we first see her, it’s when the young Ameeran (who grows up to be Umrao Jaan) is brought to her, and Khanum is sympathetic to the little girl’s plight, but quickly rationalises, “Yahan na bikti, kahin aur bikti.â€? (If not here, she’ll be sold elsewhere.) And then she goes on to bargain with the sellers in such ruthless tones, you can see why she’s the boss. Dutta gives her a line that says there’s no room for sentiment in the profession, and that could apply as much to this kothewali as a Mafia head. To paraphrase from The Godfather, there’s nothing personal, just business.

The other interesting thing Dutta does is to present the life of a courtesan along the lines of the lives of more “normal peopleâ€?. When Umrao comes back home after performing her first mujra, her caretakers (played by Himani Shivpuri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda) rejoice in her success, the way parents would when their child returns from a first day at work. And when she loses her virginity to a customer, it’s in a room decorated with flowers as a shehnai wails in the background. (The marriage/suhaag raat overtones are unmistakable.) Then there’s a scene that has Abhishek nursing his heartbreak with a pal, and if we were to replace the wine and the goblets with beer and beer mugs, it could be a moment out of any heartbroken man’s life today. And Dutta lays out his song sequences so that they mirror the happenings in Umrao’s life – when she’s introduced to the outside world, it’s through the number Salaam, and when she asks her lover (Bachchan) not to accuse her of unfaithfulness, it’s to the strains of Jhoothe ilzaam, and so on. These point-counterpoint mujras work so well that when a conventional duet shows up, it feels ridiculous; we didn’t really need a number where Aishwarya twirls around in slow motion and her dupatta flails about as bougainvilleas fall prettily all around.

But at some point, Umrao Jaan grinds to a halt and never quite recovers – and that’s as Dutta decides to showcase the romance between Nawab Sultan and Umrao. There’s something about Abhishek that makes him tough to buy as a red-blooded Pathan; despite the gruff manner and the scruffy beard, he appears too callow for the part. And Dutta spends a disproportionate amount of time on these scenes making you wonder why such a fabled beauty as Umrao never danced for others. So okay, maybe she fell in love with Nawab Sultan, but doesn’t her profession demand that she dance for pretty much anyone who shows up with a fat enough purse? Dutta does bring in other customers (like Faiz), but not before he establishes that Umrao had this One Great Love, and these parts aren’t terribly convincing (or maybe it’s the pairing that isn’t convincing). Far more interesting are the intrigues involving the other dancers (Divya Dutta, Ayesha Jhulka) who have to contend with Umrao’s mighty shadow. I’d have liked to see more of the politics in the kotha, especially since the director hints at undercurrents and never quite develops those threads satisfactorily. (He also throws us a few scenes involving the British occupation of Lucknow; again, very halfhearted and underscripted ones.)

Umrao Jaan begins as the story of a worldly-wise courtesan and it ends as the story of a world-weary courtesan, which is why the middle portions that try to paint her as just another doe-eyed ingénue in love – and in just another against-all-odds love story – feel strained. They depict far too conventional a romance, and I think Dutta got so carried away with his star-wattage footage – somewhat understandably, for a leisurely-paced costume drama with a truckload of ghazals doesn’t exactly scream box-office smash – he had to edit out portions that might have added more continuity. When Umrao stumbles on a leper towards the end, I had to strain to remember who he was and if he had appeared at all earlier in the movie. And then there’s the out-of-nowhere device of Umrao narrating her tale to… someone. If that’s the conceit that’s framing the narrative, shouldn’t Dutta have established it earlier on? Still, there’s something to be said for a beautifully mounted period piece that gives us an all-too-rare peek into a now-gone culture, not exactly dissimilar to today’s entertainment industry. Watch how the young Ameeran wants to run away to her mother and father, but changes her mind when bribed with silks and jewels and the prospect of fame! Even then, the lure of showbiz was clearly all too powerful.

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi