THE LITTLE NAUTCH GIRL
The Rekha-Muzaffar Ali version is still the definitive âUmrao Jaanâ, but Aishwarya Rai and JP Dutta donât 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, sheâs been in the most awful lot of movies ever since you can remember â movies that you doubt Shabana Azmi could have risen above â and most of these were by directors who had no clue what to do with actors. Of course, you can argue that itâs an actorâs job to act, that itâs not the directorâs job to make the actor act â but thatâs why they have the phrase âdirectorâs actorâ?, and the history of cinema is full of stars whoâve done well under certain helmers and not so well under certain others. Still, the bar is set so low for an Aishwarya Rai picture â let alone an Aishwarya Rai performance â 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 wasnât bad.
But I think itâs 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! Sheâd 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 canât 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 Malikâs score, for instance, is perfectly serviceable â and it certainly works better when seen in the context of the movie than as an audio-only experience â but it canât hold a candle to Khayyamâs tunes, just as Alka Yagnik (billed as âthe voice of Umrao Jaanâ?) canât measure up to Asha Bhosle. But then I didnât really expect that this Umrao Jaan would accomplish all of that, so I wasnât 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 â and thatâs 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 â macho studs like Abhishek Bachchan (as Nawab Sultan) and Suniel Shetty (miscast as Faiz) â but they come off as mere posers. Now Khanum â sheâs the real deal. (Sheâs even referred to as Khanum sahab, not sahiba.) When we first see her, itâs when the young Ameeran (who grows up to be Umrao Jaan) is brought to her, and Khanum is sympathetic to the little girlâs plight, but quickly rationalises, âYahan na bikti, kahin aur bikti.â? (If not here, sheâll be sold elsewhere.) And then she goes on to bargain with the sellers in such ruthless tones, you can see why sheâs the boss. Dutta gives her a line that says thereâs 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, thereâs 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 ânormal 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, itâs in a room decorated with flowers as a shehnai wails in the background. (The marriage/suhaag raat overtones are unmistakable.) Then thereâs 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 manâs life today. And Dutta lays out his song sequences so that they mirror the happenings in Umraoâs life â when sheâs introduced to the outside world, itâs through the number Salaam, and when she asks her lover (Bachchan) not to accuse her of unfaithfulness, itâs 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 didnât 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 â and thatâs as Dutta decides to showcase the romance between Nawab Sultan and Umrao. Thereâs 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 doesnât 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 arenât terribly convincing (or maybe itâs the pairing that isnât convincing). Far more interesting are the intrigues involving the other dancers (Divya Dutta, Ayesha Jhulka) who have to contend with Umraoâs mighty shadow. Iâd 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 ingÃ©nue in love â and in just another against-all-odds love story â feel strained. They depict far too conventional a romance, and I think Dutta got so carried away with his star-wattage footage â somewhat understandably, for a leisurely-paced costume drama with a truckload of ghazals doesnât exactly scream box-office smash â 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 thereâs the out-of-nowhere device of Umrao narrating her tale to… someone. If thatâs the conceit thatâs framing the narrative, shouldnât Dutta have established it earlier on? Still, thereâs 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 todayâs 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 Â©2006 The New Sunday Express