Monday, November 06, 2006

UMRAO JAAN (2006) - a truly beautiful film, though not without its flaws

Some people clamour for the release of the next Bond movie; for Nik, the coming of BORAT was The Big Event. But for my family, it was the news of a remake of the classic 1981 Bollywood movie, UMRAO JAAN that filled us with nervous tension. Not excitement. The whole project was treated with scepticism in our family - as if someone were remaking CITIZEN KANE. Why would you do it? How could you be so audacious? The news trickling in was a mixed bag. The movie was to be directed by J.P.Dutta, who had previously directed the over-long, over-blown military fiasco, LOC KARGIL. Aishwarya Rai - the stunning former Miss India - was cast as Umrao. Well, her acting in English language films is shocking but she has done some stunning work in Indian art movies and she IS trained in classical dance, so maybe she will do....Modern heart-throb Abhishek Bachchan will play the Nawab Sultan - okay, maybe.....Shabana Azmi - Indian acting heavyweight will play the Madam and the eighteenth century costumes will be designed by Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla - who also did the sumptuous costumes for DEVDAS - okay it looks better on paper at least.

Then the music was released. For any Bollywood movie, the soundtrack is all important as the flicks are glorified musicals. But for a film set in an eighteenth century brothel in Lucknow - the artistic capital of India - whose stock in trade is classical song and dance, the sound-track was crucial. At first listen, it seemed inferior to the original. The music by Anu Malik and lyrics by Javed Akhtar were beautiful, yes, but seemed to lack the pathos of the original. And Alka Yagnik's voice was simply too sweet - too bland - compared to the original version by Asha Bhosle.

The remake opens with an aged courtesan - UMRAO JAAN (Aishwarya Rai) - relating her life story to a poet called Mirza Ruswa - the man who in real life penned the tragic tale. We flash back to see a young girl called Ameeran in the kind of idyllic child-hood that begins all fairy-tales. But all is not as happy as it seems. Ameeran is taken to the wedding of a girl barely older than herself and barely out of her milk-teeth. The family of this bride will perhaps not see her again and are crying. A deeply sad song (ghazal) is playing - Oh Lord, in the next life, let me not be born a girl. The inference is that a woman's life is one of pain and disappointment. The foreshadowing is clear. And so it proves, as Ameeran is kidnapped by two scoundrels with a grudge against her virtuous father and sold to a brothel-keeper in Lucknow.

In general, this opening sequence is directed and edited badly. There are too many uses of the extended slow cross-fade and too many jarring camera movements that take us out of the story. At one point Dutta uses a hideously clumsy split screen shot with the elderly Umrao narrating the kidnap on the left and the young Ameeran being kidnapped on the right of the screen. This is hideous stuff which detracts from the beautiful locations and decent acting.

We then move to the nuts and bolts of the story in Lucknow. Shabana Azmi - as befits a classical actress - gives a performance of some subtlety. She is genuinely upset that this young girl has been abducted but argues that if she doesn't buy her someone else far less merciful will. The strength of Azmi's performance is that we always believe the brothel-keeper has a heart - she is not two-dimensionsal - and that makes the suppression of her humanity and the dominance of calculating greed all the more chilling. Ameeran is renamed Umrao, and though she tries to escape she is dazzled with jewels and an oppulent lifestyle and persuaded to stay. This makes an interesting counter-point to the original movie. Rekha's Umrao is always under suffrance. By contrast, Aishwarya's Umrao loves the limelight - she wants to dazzle and she does. The costumes are absolutely stunning. I cannot begin to describe the opulence - the decadence...Umrao's vanity shows in her different style of dance. She IS more demonstrative than the restrained Rekha but to my surprise I did not find this off-putting.

As in the earlier movie, Aishwarya's Umrao falls in love with an aristo, this time played by Abhishek Bachchan, who is destined to leave her and break her heart. I like his performance a great deal. He is no pure-hearted hero but a stubborn, proud, violent man - passionately in love but without the wisdom to be anchored in measured desicions. It was rather refreshing to see the supposed hero painted as a scoundrel. Conversely, the villain of the piece - Faiz Ali - is actually a rather decent guy. Dressed as a pantomime villain in black he does pester Umrao and his lust does take over, but his self-discipline saves him. Indeed, he is a more tragic hero than Nawab Sultan and only betrays Umrao when pushed to the limit by Nawab's immature, caste-prejudiced taunts. Definitely a new and interesting take.

Rejected by her lover and betrayed by Faiz Ali, Umrao also finds herself routed from Lucknow as the evil English put down the mutiny. There seems to be a strain in current Hindi cinema to vilify the British which is more or less considered depending on the film. I have nothing against it in principal but it seems a little forced here. However, it provides the plot hook that forces Umrao back to her home town where her humiliation will be complete. Rejected by her family she sings one last mujra which I defy all but the coldest hearts to sit through unmoved. The song is essentially a mea culpa. The lyrics speak of all the inquisitors enquiring why she did not do differently and admitting to all the tarnishes on her character and her soul. It is a plea for understanding for a young girl abducted, dazzled by wealth and flattery who loved innocently but will always be considered a whore. Quite stunning.

Overall, then, the remake of UMRAO JAAN is not perfect but toward the end it approaches a perfect tragedy. Aishwarya Rai's performace is superb - and I never thought I would say this - is as searing as Rekha's. However, their characters are rather different. I thoroughly enoyed every minute although I suspect that for some people, the three hour run time will seem like a drag, especially in the first half.

One final point for English-speaking readers who have trawled through the movie so far! The subtitles to this movie SUCK. You should wait for the DVD and hope they have been redone or watch with someone who speaks Urdu. Some times lines simply aren't translated. Whenever they are translated they are full of grammatical and spelling errors that make them look like they were spat out of Babelfish. More than a few times, they are so wrong as to obscure the meaning of the sentence.

UMRAO JAAN is on release in India, the UK and US.