Recereating classics seems to be the latest fad in Bollywood. Following the success of “Devdas”, most production houses are recreating old success stories. The recent “Don”, “Shiva”, and the upcoming “Sholay” are classic examples.
Based on Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s novel, the film is a tale of Umrao Jaan Ada, a royal courtesan in 19th century Lucknow. Kidnapped and sold at a tender age from a lower class family, Ameeran (Aishwarya Rai), is rechristened as Umrao by the brothel owner Shabana Azmi (Khanum Jaan). Therein begins Umrao’s journey into the magnificient world of elegance and flair, where her job is to entertain regal clients with her dance and poetic skills.
Comparisons to the original adaptation of “Umrao Jaan” starring Rekha are obvious, but this version holds it own and is not a frame-by-frame remake.
However the film does have its share of flaws. J.P. Dutta goes completely overboard with the development of his subplots. Nothing is left to imagination. He has paid a great level of attention to the intricacies of the film, and most of the running time is spent elaborating on those aspects. We have seen films of this grandeur in the past, with “Devdas” taking the lead, and “Umrao Jaan” offers little more.
While “Umrao Jaan” is essentially a tragedy that leads to her destitution, we don’t see her enjoying her existence. Unlike the original, there seems to be little to be upbeat about living in those times.
The locales of Lucknow and art direction are perfect. Choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant is a visual treat. However the cinematography by A. Bose appears amateur in certain settings. The constant use of quick zooms to exacerbate emotions detracts from any suggested subtleties in the film.
Notwithstanding some scenes are stellar and noteworthy.
• Umrao revisiting her parent’s home and their refutable response;
The music, barring ‘Salaam’ and ‘Dekha Tujhe Kuch’, is a little bland and gets repetitive. Alka Yagnik’s high pitched renditions certainly aren’t a treat for Dolby Digital surround cinemas.
Displaying the right amount of poise and beauty, Aishwarya is dazzling and convincing in a role originally essayed by Rekha. Not only is she aesthetically pleasing, but this performance should also clear any nuances of her performances being inert. Her fragile image, mannerisms and dialect - all add to the charm of “Umrao Jaan”. Having played characters of this era before in “Devdas” and “Choker Bali”, Aishwarya exudes confidence yet again.
Abhishek Bachchan performs functionally as the aristocratic Nawab Sultan. His character is underdeveloped and his performance is a little more than a special appearance. His on-screen chemistry with Aishwarya is evident (and it is obvious he was cast to cash in on their current pairing).
Shabana Azmi is as always flawless. Exuding pomposity and dignity, Azmi is caste appropriately as the royal priestess. Her confrontation with Abhishek Bachchan’s character in the pre-interval portion is compelling.
Suniel Shetty as always delivers an underrated performance as Faiz Ali, who is infatuated by Umrao. Divya Dutta and Ayesha Jhulka impress as the competitive sisters. Puru Rajkumar is completely miscast as the brothel pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and frankly his character is unnecessary.
It is not easy to recreate history on celluloid – be it a book or a film. “Umrao Jaan” has everything going for it: a celebrated cast, robust performances, and stunning visuals. But J.P. Dutta’s attempt only partly succeeds.