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Umrao Jaan: Journey of a Woman’s Fate as a Courtesan

First published in November 2006

You sometimes wonder whether there is a serious shortage of inspiration for our script writers for new and original stories. Over the last few years remakes seem to be the hype in Bollywood …Let’s see, what we’ve had : Devdas a couple of years ago, earlier this year the remake of DON,  Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (KANK) which was very reminiscent of Silsila, the forthcoming release of Sholay and other remakes down the pipeline.

Umrao Jaan however does not aspire to be a remake but he director JP Dutta put it, it is “another interpretation of Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa’s book Umra-O-Jaan-E-Ada written in 1904”. He insists that it is not a remake of the 1981 film version.

The film, released last Friday and in spite of a great cast, fairly good publicity and a beautiful soundtrack, the public has not rushed to go and see it as one would have expected. The film stars Aishwarya Rai; Shabana Azmi; Suniel Shetty and Abhishek Bachchan.

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One of the main criticisms of the film was its “overdose of pathos”, “too many scenes exploiting Aishwarya Rai’s tearful, screen-engulfing eyes”. The public across the UK was also quite cynical: laughs, sighs could be heard across the rooms where there were screenings. There were also complaints on the abundance of dancing, although if you know that this is about a courtesan, this amount of dancing is to be expected?

The film has some very good points which make it beautiful and dazzling. There are unfortunately some very weak ones too that let the film down at times. First, let’s see the upsides especially in respect to the director’s work.

J.P Dutta took a different approach in interpreting the story of Umrao Jaan. Unlike Muzaffar Ali in the 1981 version, this version focuses on the story of Ameeran the kidnapped young girl, later a courtesan Umrao Jaan becoming one the prides of Lucknow. The earlier film focused on the courtesan herself. Here, we are offered an emotional journey through the woman’s life giving us the picture of her fate.

This emotional tone to the film is felt from the opening scene and resonates throughout. The first musical notes, deep down tempo beat, Yagnik’s voice, the tone of the narrator’s voice as she starts to tell her story to the poet Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa warn the viewer: “this is not going to be funny”. The song “Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo” (that could grossly read: Please do not bring me back as a daughter in my next life, pardon my very poor Hindi…) is a recurrent score especially when there are twists in her fate.

Khanum Sahib, the maternal madam of the brothel, is beautifully performed by a very vivid and majestic Shabana Azmi. She manages to give depth to the priestess of a high kotha, which aristocrats and cultured nawabs frequented. Azmi also succeeds in portraying the way that mistress balanced the image of a courtesan whose heart was put on ice when it came to work, but also managed to be maternal and loving with her girls.

Other notable performance is from Abhishek Bachchan, who beautifully interpreted the way the noble but dissolute Nawab Sultan, is torn between requirements of his class and the passion he strongly feels for Umrao. The emotions, lust, feelings and tears for Umrao came across as genuine in his interpretation.

Other upsides include Aishwarya’s dancing scenes where as a skilled dancer she astounds the audience in each of the scenes she performs: her presence is undeniable. And finally, it is a beautiful film. Shot in the very locations of the story in Lucknow and a couple of scenes in Jaipur it has impressive scenes. The costumes are beautiful, although probably not as aesthetic and as spectacular as Devdas, but definitely a feast for the eyes.

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The downsides are what make it an ok movie rather than great one. Aishwarya’s unconvincing acting performance. While her dancing gives her amazing presence, Aishwarya Rai’s acting does not reach the same level and ends up lacking depth. There seemed to be no chemistry between her male counterpart Abhishek Bachchan.

Suniel Shetty is disappointingly less convincing in his role as a dacoit as well as a smitten lover of Umrao. There is a flash of his great acting talent in one scene, but it only lasts 30 seconds on the whole three hours. No I am too harsh, let’s give him 60 seconds. This goes completely unnoticed. He is a very good actor and will have other projects where his performance will truly shine, but not here.

All in all, something falls short in this film. It will either leave you completely emotionally shaken and crying – like I was, if you let yourself go and manipulate by the director – or yawning and thinking of what you will be having for your next meal throughout the film.

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