The new ‘Umrao Jaan’ stars Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. According a review I read on the radiosargam website, the new movie is a poorly-directed disappointment. The review also says Ash looks beautiful (the reviewer even compares her beauty to Rekha’s, as though that has anything to do with anything) but that her performance isn’t great, and that Abhishek was woefully miscast, although he and Ash have great chemistry in their scenes together. Guess I’ll have to wait awhile to find out if I agree.
After seeing the original ‘Umrao Jaan’, though, I wonder why they’re doing a remake. I guess they just couldn’t resist putting Ash in ornate costumes and jewelry (I always think Ash is at her most gorgeous dressed in traditional Indian outfits); and showcasing her dancing skills. I can’t really think of any other reasons to remake this movie without updating it (as was done with ‘Don’) or trying to put a new spin on it. Having said that, I guess Ash is the natural choice for this character. The only other person I can see in this role (although she would never be given it) is Madhuri Dixit.
Anyway, to the old movie. ‘Umrao Jaan’ is the story of a courtesan of the same name. The movie is set in the 19th century, and is based on a famous Urdu novel (which I now badly want to read). Umrao (then known as Amiraan) is kidnapped from her parents as a child by a man who holds a grudge against her father. He intends to kill her, but later decides to sell her to the madam of a brothel in Lucknow. The madam changes her name to ‘Umrao’. She is raised in the dysfunctional family that exists in the brothel, and learns to sing and dance beautifully – no, exquisitely. She also becomes an accomplished poet in her own right.
The courtesan is a familiar figure in Indian cinema. Watch a few movies and you’re bound to meet one. Tainted, loved, lusted after, reviled, envied, despised, praised, used, adored, hated, worshipped… she is usually presented as a doomed woman – one who has no option but to continue to entertain strangers, because she can never be anything more. She is also often presented as a woman with a goddess-like ability to love and forgive unconditionally. More often than not, I get the sense that the courtesan is used as an object (albeit one that arouses extremely ambivalent and complex feelings), a relic, not a person.
I loved this movie. The script is excellent, the movie is beautifully shot (great directing), and the music is out of this world – fantastic songs. It's not perfect - there are some glaring continuity errors, and the fake-pretend instrumentalists accompanying Umrao's songs are a bit jarring. But, altogether, it's a very good movie and everyone involved did very well. Supported by a very good cast, however, this movie belongs to Rekha. Rekha is absolutely stunning in this movie – she infuses so much life into her character with every look, every movement, and every word. She really becomes ‘Umrao Jaan’, and I think Aishwarya must be very brave (or unwise) to take on a role that was so wonderfully inhabited in the original film.
Rekha makes Umrao, despite her exquisite beauty and elegance, a woman I could instantly relate to. Without ever really letting go of the reserve, mystery and ‘stature’ of the character, she lets you see that at heart, Umrao is just another woman desperate to be loved and accepted. She is vulnerable, in need of affirmation and support. She is just another woman torn between loyalty to the people to have raised (and used) her, and the desire to be someone else. In a way, Umrao is a very mundane character. There are thousands of Umraos - they can be found in every city and village in the world. Rekha makes her elusive and mysterious, but also very (and tragically) real. Not an object, not a religious relic, but a person.
At the end of the film, when Umrao comes full circle, she is told that it would have better if she had died. It’s an interesting (though appalling) comment, considering the fact that she was to have been killed at the beginning, and was only spared because of greed – and her kidnapper probably congratulated himself later on his humanity in selling her rather than killing her. Umrao’s choice at the very end (I’m trying hard not to spoil) makes total sense to me – what are her options?
The script raises many issues surrounding the traditions of the brothel. They apply just as much to every city in the world as they do to Lucknow. Thankfully, the film doesn’t attempt to answer the questions it raises – that would have ruined it. It shows you how complex the relationship is between the madam who makes a killing from the girls in her brothel, while effectively enslaving them; and the girls who can’t help but love her, although they hate her. The opening scene, showing Umrao being adorned almost as a bride (something she can never be) is very moving. ‘Umrao Jaan’ shows you how the activities in the brothel affect families outside it. And, particularly at the heartrending end of the movie, it shows you the overwhelming hypocrisy of society in condemning women who live in the world of the brothel.
Umrao’s story, she is once told, is her ‘fate’ (which I think is hogwash). She disagrees. She thinks she is simply a victim of cruel circumstance. Although I disagree, her opinion seems to makes sense, because as she finds out, a simple circumstance (which, interestingly, had to do with the shade of her skin) could have changed the path of her life completely. But she was powerless, and left to the mercy of others’ choices. Like so many other things in life, at the end of the day, it comes down to one question – who holds the power? And what do they do with it?
Nobody mentions the huge role that human weakness, greed, pettiness, selfishness, cowardice and just sheer cruelty play in Umrao's story, but the great thing about this film is that nobody has to – it’s glaring. The characters in the brothel even try to exculpate themselves by saying that Umrao’s fate would have been worse if she had been bought by a wealthy woman to act as a maid – which turns out to be oh-soooo-very-ironic.
This film leaves the viewer with so many questions – but it’s not depressing, although it's desperately sad. In a way, it’s actually inspiring and thought-provoking, because it shows both the bad and the good (and the huge gray area in between) that exists in each one of us. The great thing about this story, to me, is that it’s very much an everyday story, despite its appears larger-than-life presentation. I once read on someone's blog that the new 'Umrao Jaan' might not succeed because people don't understand the old traditions of the courtesan anymore; but knowing next-to-nothing about those traditions did not at all prevent me from enjoying this film and thinking about the issues it raises.
I’ve seen Rekha in two other films. She played another courtesan, 'Zohrabai', in ‘Muqaddar ka Sikandar’, also starring Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna – a very good performance. I’ve also seen her in ‘Ghazab’, with Dharmendra, in which she was also very good. But in ‘Umrao Jaan’ she is simply spellbinding.
PS Just read on Maja's blog that the new 'Umrao Jaan' isn't a remake but a new treatment of the classic novel. Unfortunately too lazy to edit my post!