Monday, November 06, 2006

UMRAO JAAN (1981) - an iconic Indian art film

UMRAO JAAN is a tragic love story that is as perhaps as famous for Indians as Romeo and Juliet. As such, there is no such thing as a plot spoiler. Originally penned by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, the story is a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers whose love cannot succeed in a corrupt and decadent world. It opens with a young girl called Ameeran, living with her doting father, loving mother and little brother in the small town of Faizabad, in eighteenth century northern India. She is abducted by ruthless men who have a grudge against her virtuous father and sold to a brothel in Lucknow - a town famed for its poets, classical music, and the dance form known as the mujra which unites the two in dance and song. This entertainment by courtesans takes place within a Muslim society governed by strict codes of honour.

Ameeran is given the new name of Umrao and trained to seduce with her poetry and dance along with other girls, not least the madame's own daughter Bismillah. As a young woman, Umrao is enchanting and captures the heart of Nawab Sultan - a young aristocrat. As such, she is now Umrao Jaan (beloved). However, he is forced to renounce her and marry another. Umrao Jaan is heart-broken but scorns the advances of another client, Faiz Ali. She returns to her old village but is scorned by her family for bringing disrepute on the family. She returns to Lucknow - the tragedy is that for one whose name is "Beloved" she has been abandoned by her lover and her family, to sing beautiful songs of heartbreak.

Not only is the original story iconic, but it was adapted into a highly successful film - both artistically and commercially. This iconic 1981 film of UMRAO JAAN was adapted and directed by Muzaffar Ali - a man born in Lucknow and steeped in its traditions. The production was fortuitous insofar as it captured the work of a number of artists at the height of their power - music by Khayyam, heart-breaking lyrics by Shahryar, playback singing by Asha Bhosle before age thickened her voice. The locations and costumes were sumptuous but the jewel of the production was the actress - Rekha. To watch UMRAO JAAN in its original version is to see an undoubtedly stunning and seductive woman who can enchant with a mere glance. Watching the choreography today, you are amazed by how little she does physically. This is especially the case when you contrast the film with contemporary Bollywood cinema - as often as not full of scantily clad women krumping. When decades have passed, if Rekha is remembered it will be for UMRAO JAAN. But even the minor roles have superb actors filling them, not least a young Naseerudin Shah as her young errand-boy in the brothel. In this version of the story, the tragedy of UMRAO JAAN is rooted in the fact that while the Nawab cannot marry Umrao, he does in fact marry her child-hood friend - the brothel-keeper's daughter, who was unaware her best friend was in love with the prince. Summoned to dance at their son's coming of age ceremony, she forgives her best friend, and sings her heart out.

To many, including myself, the original UMRAO JAAN is a classic. We always had the music in the house, on crappy cassettes, then on CD and one of the first replacement DVDs we bought was UMRAO JAAN - alongside the outstanding TV serial of the life of MIRZA GHALIB, starring Naseerudin Shah - a serial set in the same environs, also full of ghazals, poetry and mujra. It is one of those very few films where you wouldn't change a thing. One of a handful of true Pantheon movies......It is widely available on DVD and I would strongly recommend anyone looking for a way into Indian cinema - between the two extremes of Bollywood popcorn and austere art-film - to try and watch it. It is a beautiful film.

UMRAO JAAN was originally released in 1981.