Umrao Jaan is an adaptation of the book ‘Umrao Jaan Ada’ written in 1905 by a well known poet called ‘Ruswa.’ Whether the lovely courtesan, who was also known as the ‘heartbeat of Avadh’, and poetess existed or was the imagination of the poet is still debatable.
His words were beautifully translated on celluloid by Muzzafar Ali in 1981 with the gorgeous Rekha playing the soulful and elegant Umrao.
25 years later J.P Dutta attempts to recreate the magic and fails miserably.
The movie starts with the shot of a woman sitting behind a beaded curtain in muted (read, very bad) lighting. The camera pans for a close up but stops short of it. She is singing/reciting a verse and her mellifluous voice carries over to her neighbors where the poet Ruswa, who is having a drink with his friend, is enchanted and compelled enough by it to go visit her.
The lady is Umrao (Aishwariya Rai) and after being requested by Ruswa she begins narrating her life’s story to him. *why Umrao, why!!!*
Umrao was born Ameeran, the daughter of a jamadar (Parikshit Sahani) *sweeper/police officer, take your pick. Mr Dutta expects us to have in depth knowledge of Urdu before we watch the film* in the small village of Faizabad.
Due to the enmity a person from the village harbors towards her father, Ameeran is kidnapped at a tender age and sold to a courtesan Khanum (Shabana Azmi) who runs the most prestigious ‘kotha’ in Lucknow where she is rechristened ‘Umrao’.
As she grows up with the childless Moulvi Saheb (Kulbhusahn Kharbanda) and Bua Hussaini (Himani Shivpuri) fulfilling the role of her parents, the memories of her childhood gradually begin to fade away what with lessons at home; dance classes and playing and spending time in the company of Khanum’s daughter, Bismillah (Divya Dutta), Khurshid (Ayesha Julka) and Gauhar Mirza (Puru Raaj Kumar), even though the longing to return home to her parents and brother someday remains in her heart.
Umrao grows up to be a gorgeous girl and Khanum decides to allow her to debut by presenting her first mujra to Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). The eligible and wealthy Nawab is besotted and pays the highest price for Umrao and her virginity and they both promptly fall in love within minutes of setting eyes on each other.
Deeply in love, Umrao begins weaving dreams of a future together with Nawab till Nawabs father objects to a courtesan spending time with his son and immediately disowns his son who refuses to leave Umrao.*yawn*
Khanum reminds Umrao that a courtesan’s first love is always money and without a penny to his name, the Nawab is no longer an asset to the ‘kotha’.
Nawab leaves behind a heart-broken Umrao to search for his identity and right away, another admirer Faiz Ali (Suniel Shetty) a dacoit posing as a Nawab walks in.
Enamored by his display of wealth, Khanum nudges Umrao towards Faiz till Umrao confesses she is nothing but a ‘dead body’ till her love returns to her.
Faiz continues to try to woo the ice-maiden but fails with every attempt.
To get back at this Faiz poisons Nawabs mind against Umrao when they finally meet again and Nawab shuns her.
And so she returns, back to the ‘kotha’ she wants so desperately to escape from.
Back at the ‘kotha’, Gauhar who has always fancied Umrao despite being turned down by her constantly, rapes her under the influence of alcohol.
Inspite of the men in her life repeatedly letting her down, Umrao carries on with her life until the war of independence breaks out and the residents of the ‘kotha’ and Lucknow are forced to flee it. Khanum stays behind, stoically proclaiming that ‘jahan kotha, wahan khanum.*like we care!* The journey takes Umrao and her troupe to Faizabad, where she sets up her own ‘kotha’ and is immediately commissioned for a mujra.
On asking around, Umrao finds out that her father has passed away, but her mother (Maya Alagh) still lives in the same house along with her brother who has now grown up. She rushes to her old home and memories flood back, misting her eyes, but she is rebuked by both her mother and brother for leading a debauched life and is asked to leave. *like the child had a choice for God sake!*
The cherry on the icing is the last song where Umrao performs a melancholy ‘Mujra’ to answer back the people of Faizabad who are poking fun at her and her (depraved) life. She is wearing a blue outfit with a blue velvet ‘dabbawala’ cap, and dancing in the recycled-by-painting-it-blue set.
Don’t ask me why but I was cringing in embarrassment throughout the song and the only thing that kept me from bawling out aloud was the fact that I didn’t want to scare away the 11 and half people (1 lady was pregnant) who were still watching the movie.
The movie wraps up with Ruswa walking away *presumably to write this damned story* and a final close up of Aishwariya looking very dark and scary *please note she is supposed to look aged.* sitting alone in that (still) badly-lit room.
Why I did not like the movie.
The only word to describe this movie is ‘ridiculous’.
* Aishwariya Rai, an international face and model selling hair color and designer watches worldwide playing a demure courtesan of the 19th century is flawed casting in itself. Her atrocious Urdu and her (item-number) body language lack grace. A courtesan is supposed to look coquettish not conniving. Her tepid performance does not let the viewer empathize with Umrao at any stage of her life.
* She has this chalky make up that makes her face look ghostly white. Her left eyebrow is higher than her right one, an aspect which annoyed me constantly during her close ups on screen.
Abhishek Bachchan is inexpressive and badly dressed in ill-fitting clothes. He has a perennial ‘lets-get-this-over-with’ expression throughout the film. The much-talked about chemistry between Aishwariya Aunty and Abhishek Baccha was missing.
Shabana Azmi not only looks and behaves clownishly but her hamming could teach Shahrukh Khan a thing or two.
Divya Dutta, Ayesha Jhulka and Puru Rajkumar are totally wasted as pitiful extras in the movie.
Suniel Shetty is a picture of ridicule with his comical attire and performance.
Anu Mallik’s insipid music is a disappointment with never ending songs coming in too quick a succession in the first half.
Alka Yagnik’s voice grates on the nerves and Javed Akhtar’s lyrics disappoint. I could not recall even a single line with the exception of the soulfully rendered “Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo” by Richa Sharma.
Recycled, garish sets. The same set that was used as Khanum’s kotha was painted a vulgar blue and used in the last song. *I am not very sure but the same was used in the ‘Tum bhi pehle pehle song’ too.*
Patchy script and screenplay, horrendous direction, and an editor who was probably asleep at the editing table make this film a never ending nightmare. The unintelligible Urdu used at certain places made it difficult to comprehend what the characters were talking about.
J.P Dutta has been crying himself hoarse, denying the fact that his Umrao is not a remake of Muzzafar Ali’s Umrao. Thank God for that!