Thursday, December 14, 2006


Before I write a word about the Umrao Jaan of the celluloid and paper, of the new and the old, I have a confession to make. Actually make that two.

One, I love muslim socials.

Stories set in the Nawabi era or the bygone Mughal days. All those Bahu Begums and Chaudvin Ka Chands who at the slightest hint of male presence would pull veils over their fair faces with Hai Allahs!. Who can forget those Taj Mahals and Mughal-e-Azams with the Salim-Anarkali dalliances. And how, all those konishes and kowtowing to Jahanpanahs and Mallika-e-alams nothwithstanding, the Salims sang rebellious Zindabads to their mohabbats (Ae Mohabbat Zindabad) and the londis unabashedly declared their love (Hum Intezaar Karenge, Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya). It was indeed a wonderful world.

Two, I detest tears by the bucketfuls.

Having been raised on regular Bollywood fare, I understand of course, that tears are to damsels in distress what dal-chawal is to the common man. And they have to be shed where they have to be shed. But why let copius amounts flow where a few drops or slight wetness of the eye would suffice. Why this colossal waste!!!

And thus between these two preferences, my watching of Umrao Jaan became somewhat of a tussle. So that for every tug at a beautifully crafted scene there was a kick at an overabundant emotion on display.

Both movies, the earlier Umrao Jaan Ada by Muzaffar Ali (starring Rekha in the title role for which she won a National Award) and the recently released J.P. Dutta's Umrao Jaan are based on a book of the same name penned by a Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa, sometime around 1905-6. This slim volume begins with Mirza Ruswa's encounter with Umrao, at a Seraikhana somewhere in Central Awadh. Hearing that the renowned singer and poet was occupying another wing of the same house, Ruswa strained his ears for some snatches of poems or music that might come his way. Soon he summoned enough courage to go and speak to her. And from her story was born his book.

In that sense, J.P. Dutta's new rendition of Umrao's tale is closer to the book. Dutta begins by having Umrao (Aishwarya) narrate her personal saga of sorrow to Ruswa. This Ruswa character was quite inspid, I thought, played as it was by a Mr-No-Name-Unknown-Face who looked as if he were just going through the motions. One would have liked to see an actor of some presence and calibre play this role.

The movie runs thus. (Warning-spoilers and all that)

Young Amiran gets kidnapped and sold into the tawaif-dom of Khanam Sahib (Shabana Azmi playing the role her mother, Shaukat Azmi did so competently in Muzzafar Ali's movie). Khanam Sahib who in her heydays was a top courtesan and had nawabs twined around her fingers, now raises a future generation of tawaifs and kothewalis by giving them taleem and tarbiat (oh! how lovely it all sounds in Urdu!!).

Among these girls is the young Amiran now named Umrao, who is "given" by Khanam to Bua Hussaini, a domestic of sorts in the household, to be looked after and cared. While Bua (Himani Shivpuri) plies her with love, Maulvi Sahab (Kulbhushan) teaches her the written word and all those rhymings,lilts and undulations that are needed in the world of Urdu poetry. Judging from the couplets that Umrao and the Maulvi make, the results of this taleem are pitiable. (One is reminded of all those street urchin style couplets that run along the lines "love mangta hoon, refuse maat karna, mere hope ke bulb ko fuse maat karna").

Soon Umrao's has her coming out day when she performs a mujra before a huge Lucknavi audience. Among them is a junior Nawab Saheb (played by Bachchan Junior) who is quite taken aback by the combination of Umrao's brains and beauty. The besotted Nawab seeks out Umrao and the love birds sing and dance for awhile. After this, a mound of misunderstandings follow, each accompanied by a greater mound of tears. Thus is the story lost like a small stream in a desert.

Where is the real Umrao? Where is the woman who was learned and erudite, who wrote, composed and sang; who was equally famous for her mehfills and mushaiaras as she was for her generosity and piety. A woman who headed a household, earned like a prince and donated to the poor and destitute. Where Rekha had brought a touch of class, showcasing an Umrao with strength and stoicism despite her weaker moments, all Ash does is dress well for every dance.

The men in the movie seem like misfits too. Khanam's son (Puru Rajkumar reciting his dialogues as if he were in a memory competition) is shown with a soft spot for Umrao; however the undercurrent of his relationship with Umrao is never explored, unless the scene where he forces himself on her falls in the exploratory category!!!! Neither is Suniel Shetty suited to the character of Faiz Ali. Faiz Ali is meant to be a brave and ferocious individual. That Umrao runs away with him is meant to show how desperate she is to get away. Here Faiz Ali seems like a wimpering idiot!!!

Abhishek Bachchan as the Junior Nawab doesn't do too bad. He tries to look somewhat convincing, beard and all, but the 21st century sheen stays. Kharbanda and Himani do a good job, as much as the script would allow. I quite liked it where Himani in a snatch of dialogue, pronounces Lucknow as Nuclow; Nuclow being a true blue Lucknavi's term of endearment for the city.

The other women don't get much meat, either. The tawaif girls who are Umrao's friends, hardly have any footage, Shabana gets some and does a great job of it. In fact, she conveys so much by a cynical twitch or a slight raising of brows or a quiver of mouth that you wonder why dialogue is not redundant. To be frank, Dutta wastes a lot of celluloid on the misunderstandings and wimperings and tears that the Nawab and Umrao subject each other to: had he shown some thrift here, some of the other characters could have been better etched.

What he does not waste on, mercifully, are the dances of Umrao. Arguably these ARE the show pieces of the film. The ornate rooms, the elegant costumes and the stunning Ash whirling in them, make these dances a visual treat. The scenes captured from above as the pankhas gently move and one intakes of the opulence and grandeur, while Ash's hands make stylish movements, are indeed breathtaking beautiful.

J.P Dutta's Umrao is SO different from the life of that feisty, strong and talented woman that Ash has nothing to perform here. She cries her eyes out (beautiful blue eyes at that!!), her heart out, indeed almost her very life out. And yet no one is touched.

Tears by the buckets don't necessarily touch people's hearts. Someone needs to tell out Bollywood directors that.


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