Movie Review: Umrao Jaan ...

By Subhash K. Jha, Indo-Asian News Service

imageFilm: Umrao

Jaan; Cast: Shabana Azmi, Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan, Puru Raj

Kumar, Suniel Shetty; Director: J.P. Dutta; Rating: ***1/2

In one of the countless visuals of stunning resonance, Aishwarya,

playing the doomed and poetic tawaif (courtesan) Umrao Jaan Adaa,

travels through a burning field of crops. "The crops have been reaped,

now the fields are being burnt for good luck next year," explains a co


That one gloriously revealing moment captures the sublime pathos

that coloured the life and times of 19th century Lucknow's famed

courtesan, who in her words is a "badnasibi ki misaal" (the classic

example of misfortune).

We've seen Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh in several Hindi films ranging

from Muzaffar Ali's "Umrao Jaan" to Chandan Arora's "Main Meri Patni

Aur Woh". But the city and its surrounding topography have never looked

more vivid.

Perched between the world within a kotha (brothel) and the outer

world of growing deceit and betrayal, the story of little Ameeran's

journey from her quaint and happy family life to the Kotha is mapped in

lucid, flamboyant and sometimes muted colours of utter enchantment.

J.P. Dutta, along with cinematographer Aynanka Bose, takes us on a

pilgrimage through Umrao's inner and outer landscape creating perfect

visuals to portray her predicament as a 'fallen woman' forever rising

above her destiny.

What lifts this "Umrao Jaan" far above the 1978 version is its sense

of imminent historicity. While the original stopped just after the

doomed woman returns to the comforting yet claustrophobic space of the

kotha, Dutta's narrative moves forward, carving a socio-historical

perspective for his protagonist in a Lucknow going through a bloody

turmoil, as its cultural legitimacy is questioned and mocked by the

British Raj.

The film's most memorable sequence is when the kotha's practical and

yet emotional madame (Shabana Azmi) packs off her endangered girls and

stays on in the brothel - a solitary figure standing over the looming

architecture as a symbol of unaccompanied bravery.

Shabana's histrionics are awe-inspiring, comparable with her mother

Shaukat's performance in the same role in Muzaffar Ali's film.

"Umrao Jaan" must not be allowed to be a victim of cynical readings.

Its statement, comparing the woman's heart to a railway station, where

any man can stop to while away time, has a resonance way beyond the

time-zones Dutta creates within his lengthy but satisfying work of


The ambience of the kotha is superbly re-created by art director

Bijon Dasgupta. But Vaibhavi Merchant's choreography lets down the

courtesans' tale. It fails to evoke the sensuous grace that Rai is

capable of. Too much of Javed Akhtar's evocative lyrics are expressed

in hand movements.

There's a great deal of warmth in the crisscross of relationships

that the screenplay creates. Umrao's rapport with her surrogate father

in the brothel, played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda, is truly special.

Aishwarya imbues a sense of luminosity into Umrao's all-giving

nature. As Umrao, she's remarkably vulnerable and gentle, trying to

safeguard her interests emotionally rather than instinctively.

Her two key romantic sequences with Abhishek Bachchan convey a

feeling of bridled anxiety but are felled by their inordinate length.

They needed to be curtailed and streamlined. The same applies to the

plethora of mujras (dance sequences) - all gracefully performed by the

resplendent Rai, but monotonous for their frequency and genre-


Anu Malik's music and Alka Yagnik's singing go a long way in evoking

the poetic tragedy of a woman who craves to break free from her


"Umrao Jaan" is remarkable for recreating the rhythms of a charming

though lost culture through the pacy movements of the tawaif's feet,

though the choreography does restrict the Aishwarya's swan-like


The film also gives space to lesser-known actors like Puru Raj

Kumar, who is splendid as Umrao's roguish in-house suitor at the kotha,

and Divya Dutta melts your heart in the one important sequence that the

script allows her.

Abhishek Bachchan, as the tormented, torn and yet restrained Nawab,

is a portrait of bridled intensity. That little smirk in the corner of

his mouth or that almost-invisible twinkle in his eye - these nuances

show how much Bachchan junior has evolved.

For creating an "Umrao Jaan", who stays in our hearts, and for

giving Aishwarya Rai yet another memorable role, J.P. Dutta must take a


Be the first you write reviews for Umrao Jaan the movie! Comment below ... Rating: 1.5