Saturday, November 04, 2006

Umrao Jaan 

Umrao Jaan

What would induce a viewer today to watch another version of Umrao Jaan? Maybe if it were a grand period piece, a gripping romantic saga, the retelling of an old story with a contemporary perspective, an interesting biopic of an extraordinary character. Unfortunately, J.P. Dutta’s Umrao Jaan is none of the above.

Most of today’s audiences don’t know or care about Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada. It may have been a classic in its time, but does it work for today’s audience? Does it make you wonder about the woman who inspired so many men (a book, four films and a couple of plays)? Not if Dutta’s version were to be believed. His Umrao is a beautiful but vapid woman, a victim of circumstances, but one who does nothing to rise above her misfortune. The life of Ruswa’s celebrated courtesan and poetess is not in the least inspiring, and if it is meant to be a tragedy about a woman who was crushed by fate, then it simply does not have the requisite emotional power.

Dutta’s Umrao Jaan is a tediously slow and surprisingly passion-less rendering of the story—beautiful to look at, but in an overblown cosmetic way. Every time Umrao (Aishwarya Rai) steps out to do a mujra, she wears exquisite costumes, but with make-up that could be scraped with a knife.

As an old woman, she tells her story to Ruswa, from the time she was kidnapped and sold to Khanum’s (Shabana Azmi) kotha in Lucknow. It was a time just before the 1857 Mutiny, but since Dutta seldom moves out of the glitzy kotha and haveli milieu, while Umrao’s romance with Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) is on, there is no sense of the larger picture, no building up of tension.

Umrao falls madly in love with the young aristocrat at one glance, and wants to spend her life with him. Despite the practical Khanum’s warnings, she rejects all other suitors, but the love story ends badly, due to the misunderstanding created by another admirer Faiz Ali (Suneil Shetty).

The Mutiny breaks out, Umrao gets a chance to go back to her old home, where she is treated with disdain by her mother and brother and mocked by the townsfolk. She returns to Lucknow, but the story goes no further. Khanum has already been seen left alone in her kotha to die within its walls, like a captain going down with a burning ship—in the film's most moving scene and one in which Shabana Azmi gets to show what she can do with a well-written scene. Aishwarya Rai gets that one moment too, the meeting with her mother—but mostly she just gets all decked up and simpers. Abhishek Bachchan and Suneil Shetty are passable, but not really comfortable in their period togs.

With stars and a good budget at his disposal, Dutta was not able to make a film that makes Ruswa’s charismatic Umrao Jaan Ada matter today. Muzaffar Ali had come quite close—and his film had timeless music. Anu Malik’s compositions will never get into the league of unforgettables.


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