J.P. Dutta, who previously gave us such man-laden war epics as Border, seems to have gotten in touch with his feminine side, producing a costume drama that will have Merchant Ivory Indophile types (hallo!) swooning over the clothes, jewels and sets, with his remake of Umrao Jaan, the story of the heartbreak and misfortunes of a beautiful 19th century Lucknowi courtesan.
First things first, yes, Aishwarya Rai is exquisitely beautiful in this film, more so than she normally looks. The makeup was flawless and the budget for her and Shabana Azmi’s costumes alone must have been through the roof, because both women appear in the most dazzling assortment of colors and fabrics, that I find when I look back at notes I jotted down during the movie, about 40% are descriptions of particularly gorgeous ensembles.
Ok, enough about the clothes. What about the story? Well, for anyone who may not know or not seen the Rekha original, our favorite manglik is kidnapped as a child by a man with a grudge against her father and sold to a brothel.
The madam of the house, superbly done by the still beautifully compelling Shabana Azmi, sits on a massive silver throne as she surveys her girls and her house. The actress, who has managed for years to do all variety of Indian (and other) films, is able to portray Khanum as the woman who rules with a strong hand and steely eye for the money, but also has moments of genuine tenderness towards her girls.
My main complaint of the story is that, not unlike Chandni Bar, this film becomes an epic of the many misfortunes that happen to Umrao Jaan, giving new meaning to the Spanish phrase “Por si faltara poco, pariÃ³ la abuela trillizos” (“As if things weren’t bad enough, Grandma gave birth to triplets”). And it goes on and on and on. Sold into a brothel, boyfriend problems, Madam problems, rejection, deceit, hai hai! It just keeps getting worse.
And ok, that’s the way it is for some characters, especially 19th century women, especially courtesans. One sad refrain of a song that is repeated often in the film is “Don’t let me come back as a daughter in my next birth.” Heartbreaking.
AB 2.0 too looks magnificent on screen. His face has a fleshy quality to it that’s actually quite delish, and he looks fabulous in his wardrobe, but I thought he was too wooden in this role, compared to the turn he did in Kabhi Alvida this summer.
Himani Shivpuri and Kulbulshan Karbanda give solid performances as the “parents” to Umrao Jaan at the brothel.
Ah, and then there’s Suniel Shetty, who’s been in Dutta’s earlier films Border and Refugee. He too can be somewhat dry in his roles, but that was not his biggest challenge in this movie. Rather, it was this:
Is anyone else having flashbacks to the souvenir shop next to the Aladdin ride at Disneyland?
How about now:
I rest my case.
One other thing. When are big budget films like this going to throw a few rupees in the direction of an English-speaking person to proofread the subtitles? I’m no expert in 19th century Urdu, or even English for that matter, but I’m pretty sure no one ever said “I’ll be back in a jiffy“, or even “He looks like a nice guy” back in the day. And things like “embrace” spelled as “embress”, “she” as “se”…It just looks awfully unkempt on such an otherwise meticulous movie.
Finally, did I mention the mujras? There are several of them in this film, and they are a treat. Ash is graceful to behold and the first mujra – Salaam – is magnificent. Umrao goes to a wedding to perform (where she meets AB 2.0’s Nawab Sultan character), dressed in shimmering gold fabric and swathed in pearls, emeralds and rubies, mehndied hands and feet aflutter, and as I watched the variety of details she relays, mainly with just hands and eyes, I found myself thinking how different things are now. Anyone living in the U.S. who’s glimpsed HBO late at night can’t help but see a variety of shows about strippers, and I thought to myself tonight how intriguing and appealing and mysterious Ash was, and how clinically graphic so much of what we see is today.
This film was screened November 2nd, 2006 at the Indo-American Arts council sixth film festival. Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar were present for the film and Q & A afterward. More on that later…
See it or skip it?
See it. Sure, it could be shorter, but it’s such a visual treat to watch.