Umrao Jaan


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, parió 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.

20 thoughts on “Umrao Jaan

  1. Well yeah shabana was a kewl actress…..but she wasss……woh kia haina abb woh kafi aged hoo gaye hain and guess. she should leave the industry……well sorry if i hurt anybody!

  2. Shabana was, is and will always be a star. She’s gorgeous in any role. Her tenderness makes me close my eyes.

  3. ((((giving new meaning to the Spanish phrase “Por si faltara poco, parió la abuela trillizos” (”As if things weren’t bad enough, Grandma gave birth to triplets”). )))

    hahaha! Brilliant!

  4. I had forgotten that Ash/Rekha’s character in the movie was manglik. As a fellow manglik, how could I?

    Secondly, Sunil Shetty in Umrao Jaan.. Whaa…??? I might give it a miss just on that account.

    Finally, you don’t mention whether the quality of songs in this version are anywhere close to the original’s.

    And if you’re taking requests for movies to review, I would love to read what you have to say about another favorite (and admittedly over the top) flick: Agnipath

    P.S. Please ignore the earlier post; it has a few typos

  5. Sunny, I’d have to see the movie again, but I really came away thinking this was a step back toward all his earlier movies.

    One thing that was particularly striking was the lack of chemistry between AB 2.0 and his alleged real-life girlfriend. As a friend commented to me on the way out of the cinema last week, it was like watching two people modeling in an ad.

  6. Sorry, Filmiholic, I skipped the part on Abhishek. By the way, I did not think he was wooden, I think his acting was more subtle than usual and it must be intentional as in Bunty and Bubly he definitely went over the top in certain situations.

  7. Filmiholic: You have said nothing about Abhishek in your review. He looked so handsome. What are your thoughts??

  8. Good review. I agree with jhaji above that the film lacks some of the soul of Muzzafar Ali’s take on the story. And I agree with you that the subtitling was spotty and peculiar.

    By the way, on the costumes – I believe I read somewhere that some of Shabana Azmi’s costumes and jewelry came from her mother’s wardrobe! (Her mother Shaukat Kaifi, as many of your readers will know, played the role of Khanum in the 1981 film.)

  9. nameste
    i do agree with your review but to add i didn’t find the soul in the story,may be the pathos was missing,i am a great fan of JP DUTTA though…
    i am still with the muzzafar ali’s umrao jaan.

    PS-parents were himani shivpuri and kulbhushan kharbanda in the brothel,not aruna irani.
    hey when are you going to link me in film makers category in your blog…lol.

  10. I just saw Umrao Jaan tonight, I had all the same thoughts as you while watching the movie – admiring the costumes, sets, Ash, her makeup and dancing, and wondering why oh why the subtitles always have to be so bad. I can’t even imagine how much all the dialogues lose in translation, it’s depressing. I mean, “back in a jiffy”? Really?
    Also, I thought Sueneieieileil Shetty shouldn’t be in this movie at all, I do like him as a villain but somehow he just didn’t fit in here.

  11. No I have not seen Umrao Jaan and I will not watch it on the big screen nor on DVD. I detest the title and the look of the movie. If crores are spent on a movie, then the director/producer must make sure it has general audience interest. Reading reviews posted by viewers on different sites (bad reviews), I have come to the conclusion that I was right about this movie. As Maria’s review mentions it, the costume design (as also reviewed by many viewers) seems to be remarkable and Ash looks totally beautiful !!! I had noted this on the movie posters and I had also noticed that Abhishek looked totally out of place in the movie. Well those are my views and I am a total ‘masala film’ lover (that’s one reason I enjoyed ‘DON’). I would have loved to read Maria’s review on an old film called ‘Gardish’ starring Jackie Shroff. I list it as one of my all time favourites.

  12. She does look ravishing. After all the other boring, staid reviews on the movie, your review is a delight to read.

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  14. Dragonfire, thanks for the referrals, the first two were definitely on my must-see list. I wonder how many movies you get on the big screen in France. I stopped in Paris on the way home from a business trip a few years back and watched the newest Devdas in an art-house cinema, but it was disappointing because the screen was rather small. Thanks for visiting.

    T-hype, yes we’re really lucky in New York in that we get so much Indian cultural events here. Even right now, aside from the IAAC film festival, NYU has Shyam Benegal here for Friday afternoon and evening for screenings of some of his films and discussion, and tomorrow a museum in Queen will show KANK and have a discussion afterward with one of the crew from the film. Too much!

    And it’s a pity about Sunil getting the short end of the costume stick (and the kajal OY VEY!), as he’s a pretty handsome guy, when he’s not capped with an onion dome turban…

  15. You’re so lucky you got to see this already! It looks fabulous.

    And I think I just found another “brother from another mother” in Suniel and Shemar Moore…

  16. Hi Maria,
    I read your article on rediff, which directed me to this blog, and….. boy, i am amazed by your love for Indian cinema. I’ll go through all the posts 1 by 1, one more thing would you take the pain of writing the reviews of the films mentioned below too
    1. Anand (1969)
    2. Pakeezah (1971)
    3. Chupke Chupke (197?)
    4. Jewel Thief (1967)

    I am asking you because your reviews are “to the point” and written with the perspective of “common man” in mind, BTW i am an Indian living in France. Thanks in advance…

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