(downloaded Nov. 2006)
Dawn, November 26, 2006
Ash’s Umrao takes a mighty fall
By Mamun M. Adil
For J.P. Dutta, who is perhaps best known for war-related films such as ‘Border’ and ‘LOC’, ‘Umrao Jaan’ must have been a challenge, considering the fact that most of the female characters in his previous films rarely boast of having any substance, and consequently, fail to make a lasting impact. Therefore, perhaps his first mistake was to attempt to tackle a sensitive woman-oriented subject such as Ruswa’s ‘Umrao Jaan’
Umrao Jaan, the tale of a courtesan from Lucknow, India, was written by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa — a renowned Urdu writer, mathematician and astronomer. For those not familiar with the novel or the film, it primarily takes place in 19th-century Lucknow — the golden city of the East, the capital of the great Kingdom of Awadh, the centre of culture, arts and eloquence. It is the story of a young girl, Ameeran, who is kidnapped by a rogue, Dilawar Khan, and sold to a madam at a kotha (brothel) where she becomes a courtesan — and eventually, a poetess.
Renowned Indian film-maker Muzaffar Ali adapted the novel for the silver screen in 1981 with the sultry and sensuous Rekha playing the role of Umrao. The film, which is rightfully acclaimed as a classic today, has been recently been made again by J.P. Dutta with Bollywood’s current favourite Barbie doll, Ashwariya Rai.
For J.P. Dutta, who is perhaps best known for war-related films such as Border and LOC, Umrao Jaan must have been a challenge, considering the fact that most of the female characters in his previous films rarely boast of having any substance, and consequently, fail to make a lasting impact. Therefore, perhaps his first mistake was to attempt to tackle a sensitive woman-oriented subject such as Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan.
His second mistake, clearly, was choosing Aishwarya Rai as his leading lady, mainly because unlike Rekha, Aishwarya lacks presence and, equally importantly, no grasp over the Urdu language, a fact that is illustrated repeatedly as she continues to mispronounce words like ‘khwaab’, ‘khayal’, and ends up sounding like domestic help rather than a poetess.
There is no doubt that Aishwarya has never looked more beautiful than in Umrao Jaan. But to put it bluntly, she lacks the acting skills that are required to bring to life a complex character like Umrao’s. All Aishwarya manages to do, at best, is to move woodenly from scene to scene, blank as a slate and devoid of emotion, like a perfectly designed computer image.
Where is the passion, the aura and the presence that Umrao Jaan — and Rekha — exuded? Where is the sensitivity, the poise, the sophistication? Even in the most emotional of scenes, Aishwarya fails to create an impact. For example, towards the end of the film, Umrao Jaan meets her long lost brother and mother who disown her for being a lowly prostitute. Not for a second of such a powerful scene is Aishwarya able to grasp the audience’s attention, let alone sympathy (a tip for Aishwarya: stick to directors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali as only they can extract passable performances from you. Or even better yet, do what you do best: make guest appearances for songs such as Kajra Re — that’s where you shine — relatively speaking, of course).
Sadly, in the recent version of Umrao Jaan, the character of the famed courtesan of Lucknow never really evolves. Her inner strength, her talent as a poetess, her sophistication are not highlighted, she merely comes off as a mere victim of circumstances. She is reduced to being a mere puppet, devoid of soul or spirit. Rekha, on the other hand, captured the character’s essence, and its varied complex attributes with her sensual voice, her electric eye contact and her aura.
But Ms Rai is not the only one to blame. Abhishek Bachchan, as Umrao’s lover, Nawab Sultan, strolls around with a constant snarl, claiming in a rather un-nawab-like fashion: “Hum Pathan ka bachcha hai …” while Sunil Shetty, as Faiz Ali, mispronounces numerous words as well: “tum yahan ‘hifajat’ se rahogi ….”
And as for chemistry between Aishwarya and Abhishek’s characters — well, there really is none. There is no romance, no passion and no spark. It seems that the only reason they seem to have fallen in love is because they are supposed to.
Honestly, this version of Umrao Jaan is more like a parody of the novel rather than an adaptation. The only bearable character in the entire film is that of Khanum, played splendidly by Shabana Azmi, (interestingly enough, Azmi’s mother played the same role in Ali’s version), and even then her role seems inconsequential by the time you reach the end of this unnecessarily lengthy film (kudos to you if you manage to sit through the entire fare).
The mediocre lyrics and music are also a severe letdown. The poetry — if it can be called that — is banal, the music insipid, and while the dialogues do stand out at times, the actors’ limited grasp over the language and limited acting skills never let them shine. Not a single scene leaves an impact on the mind of the viewer, and worst still are the sets. No effort has gone into research, and unlike Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, where each scene was treated like a separate canvas, with appropriate and intricate details highlighted and accentuated, Dutta’s version has horrendous backdrops that would probably make Ruswa actually feel ruswa and turn in his grave.
Furthermore, was it really necessary for Aishwarya to wear mikimoto pearls throughout the duration of the film? After all, they were invented much after the nineteenth century and were definitely not available in Awadh!
Clearly, attention to detail is not Dutta’s strong point.
Another prime example of this is young Ameeran, who has brown eyes when she is sold to Khanum. But as she grows old, she miraculously acquires light eyes. What happened to consistency? Secondly and perhaps more importantly, how on earth can Umrao Jaan, who hails from Faizabad, have light eyes?
What is even worse, perhaps, is the fact that some of the most invaluable scenes and characters from the novel have been done away with in this big screen adaptation. In the novel, Umrao Jaan eventually meets the wife of Nawab Sultan and she turns out to be Ram Diyai, the girl she spent some days with when Dilawar Khan had kidnapped her, further accentuating the ironies and twists that life is all about. In Dutta’s version, Ram Diyai’s character ceases to exist. Nawab Sultan’s character has also been mutilated mercilessly, resulting in a film that lacks any semblance coherence, let alone soul. Similarly, the character of Bismillah has also been thrown into oblivion.
Perhaps the only positive point of this version of Umrao Jaan is the fact that it has, undoubtedly, re-aroused the public’s interest in the novel, as well as Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 version. So if you haven’t seen Aishwarya as Umrao Jaan yet, consider yourself lucky. Go watch Muzaffar Ali’s version and prepare to be swept away with outstanding performances, dialogues, music and poetry, and forget that J.P. Dutta ever made Umrao Jaan. In fact, if you’re really lucky, you’ll forget he ever tried.