A lot of Ash, but not enough Umrao
by Sukanya Verma, November 03, 2006 19:21 IST
Recreating the past is hard, and filmmakers seldom succeed in replacing the memory of the past vision with their own.
The same is true of director J P Dutta’s efforts, which are not nearly enough. His interpretation of Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa’s Urdu novel never achieves the creative brilliance and emotional poignancy of Muzzafar Ali’s benchmark 1981 adaptation. To be fair, even if you steer clear of comparisons, the new Umrao Jaan barely demonstrates the soul or fabric of a classic. Instead it alternates between a hollow, glossy romance and an outrageous period drama.
The film documents the heartbreaks and disillusionments in the life of gifted courtesan Umrao Jaan (Aishwarya Rai). As in the novel, the story unfolds in flashbacks told to the author (Anwar Nadeem in a mind-numbing performance) by the lady herself, a la Interview With The Vampire (and a shabbily executed one at that).
Before winning the hearts of her mujra-loving admirers in Lucknow, Umrao nursed dreams of a normal life like any other regular teenage girl. Born Ameeran to a poor but respectable family of Faizabad, she is kidnapped by an enemy (Vishwajeet Pradhan) of her father (Parikshit Sahni) and sold to a sharp Madame Khanum Jaan (Shabana Azmi). Mesmerized by the lure of fancy clothes, pretty ornaments and carefree dancing, Ameeran, now rechristened Umrao, masters the art of dance and poetry.
In her first public performance itself, she falls hard for the dashing Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). Her passion is likewise reciprocated. Here Dutta literally forces the romance down the viewer’s throat. In their second meeting itself, they are exchanging rings and eternal promises of ever-lasting togetherness. Instead of building a simmering chemistry, he inserts unnecessary, lengthy songs and ruins the momentum. And then he adds threats to their romance in the form of rivalry eleme nts like a dacoit-in-the-garb-of-a-nawab, Faiz Ali (Sunil Shetty) and Umrao’s childhood mate, Gauhar (Puru Raaj Kumar). At this juncture, Umrao Jaan begins to lose whatever grip it had and stops making sense.
Essentially, Umrao Jaan talks about a woman being let down by all the three men she got involved with. Here Dutta weaves the three episodes into one and takes away the impact of Umrao’s great loss making the men in her life come across as spineless, ruthless and hopelessm respectively.
If you are the soft-hearted types, you will feel a lump down your throat everytime the heart-wrenching Agle janam mohe bitiya plays in the background. Sadly, the drama of Anu Malik’s composition is not echoed in the dialogues. The makers misconstrue misery as an invitation to invent a weepy melodrama.
Ironically, even as Dutta adapts to the old style of filmmaking: prolonged scenes, compelling close-ups, symbolic gestures and a series of songs (did I say there are too many of those? I must reiterate!), he doesn’t ever capture the old world charm.
Ostentatiously painted sets of havelis and kothas sporting ornate silver paan boxes, hookah pipes, Persian carpets and hand-operated ceiling fans give an exhausted, jaded appearance. Sure, the place looks enormous but not opulent, flamboyant but not fantastic. The concepts of shayari (poetry), aadabs (greeting) and mehfils (gatherings) never find an outlet in the proceedings. Instead, aristocrats are positioned like bland extras to fill up the picture. There is no subtext to pay attention to the etiquette-heavy culture of the nawabs and their refined elegance in the customs of the tawaif.
Deficiency in detailing aside, Umrao Jaan‘s biggest guilty party is majority of its cast. Dutta has chosen wrong actors for wrong roles — lousy actors play key parts and an exceptional artist like Divya Dutta is reduced to a sidekick. Puru Raaj Kumar and Sunil Shetty are grossly miscast as Gauhar Mirza and Faiz Ali. Forget getting into the skin of the character, they don’t even touch it. Filmi acting coupled with incorrectly pronounced Urdu rubbishes the authenticity.
The dialogues are emphatic, and an interesting mix of weighty literary lines and those with poetic simplicity. Thank God for Shabana Azmi. Her literary background and intimidating personality prove to be a formidable mix as she effortlessly conveys the flavour and mentality of an era with hard-hitting conviction.
The chemistry between Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan is pleasant, though not necessarily passionate. Like in their previous outings — Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke and Kuch Naa Kaho — the couple share a relaxed rapport.
Bachchan Jr is wasted in what was supposed to be charming but turned out to be inconsequential role. True, he wears a scruffy beard and designer sherwanis with elan, but the same cannot be said about his edgy and weakly-written role. The film doesn’t extract any of his charm or vulnerability. Nawab Sultan’s connection with Umrao is supposed to be based on the duo’s collective love for poetry. But the way he dumps her here shows it was only lust that brought them together.
Finally, there is Aishwarya Rai — the star, queen and saving grace of Umrao Jaan. She enthralls with her gorgeousness, the precision in her dance movements, elegance in her gestures and sincerity in her willingness to become Umrao Jaan Ada. Don’t expect an Umrao Jaan. Don’t expect a Rekha. But Aishwarya Rai? You’ll get plenty.