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Upsides and flipsides of Umrao Jaan

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By: Subhash K. Jha, IndiaFM
Monday, November 06, 2006
Starring: Shabana Azmi, Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan, Puru Raj Kumar, Suniel Shetty Editor-Director: J.P. Dutta

Ummmm....Rai Jaan!

We've seen Lucknow and the rest of Uttar Pradesh in several Hindi films ranging from Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan to Chandan Arora's Main Meri Patni Aur Woh . The city and its surrounding topography has never looked more vivid in its evocation of a crisis of cultural poignancy.

Perched between a world of the kotha 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 lonely pride of the Kotha , is mapped in lucid vivid sometimes-flamboyant sometimes-muted colours of utter enchantment.

Upsides

J.P. Dutta's locational luminosity and visual vitality have never been questionable. Along with cinematographer Aynanka Bose he takes us on a pilgrimage through Umrao's inner and outer landscape creating perfect visuals to exteriorize her poignant yet poetic predicament as a Fallen Woman forever rising above her destiny.

What lifts this Umrao Jaan far above the other 1978 version is its sense of imminent historicity. Whereas the old Umrao stopped short in its tracks just after the doomed woman returns to the comforting and yet ironically damning life-defining space of the kotha, J.P Dutta's narrative moves bravely forward, carving a socio-historical perspective for his memorable protagonist in a Lucknow going through a bloodied turmoil, as its cultural legitimacy is questioned and mocked the British rage...sorry, raj.

The film's most memorable sequence occurs after the kotha's avaricious practical and yet emotional Madame packs off her endangered girls and stays on in the brothel, a solitary figure standing over the looming architecture in imposing isolation as an emblem of unaccompanied bravery.

In many ways Shabana at that moment, reminds of J.P. Dutta himself-battling a cynical contemporary cinematic world that has no patience with old-world cultures. Umrao Jaan must not be allowed to be a victim of cynical readings Its statement on the woman's heart as 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 finally greatly satisfying work of restrospective art.

The kotha ambience is superbly re-created (art director Bijon Dasgupta proves his worth). Shabana's Madame-Mother Hen act is an awe-inspiring piece of overt histrionics eminently comparable with her mother Shaukat's performance in the same role in Muzaffar Ali's film.

There's a great deal of warmth in the crisscross of relationships that the screenplay creates...specially Umrao's rapport with her surrogate-father in the brothel (played by Dutta's lucky mascot , that chameleon-like actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda).

Aishwarya imbues a sense of lived-in luminosity into Umrao's all-giving no-receiving nature. As Umrao she's remarkably vulnerable and gentle , like a wounded deer running through a forest of dangerous species, somehow safeguarding 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. The two sequences, filmed as one long shot, needed to be curtailed and streamlined.....The same applies to the plethora of Mujras, all capably and gracefully performed by the resplendent Rai, but monotonous for their frequency and genre-specificity.

Though Anu Malik and Alka Yagnik are no Ghulam Mohamed and Lata Mangeshkar (Pakeeezah) their compositions and singing go a long way in evoking the poetic tragedy of a woman who craves to break free of her destiny.

Umrao Jaan is remarkable for recreating the rhythms of a charming though lost culture through the pacy movements of the tawaif's feet. Lamentably the choreography restricts the swan-like agility of Rai....The gallery of performances topped by Shabana's regal Madame's act , also gives space to lesser-known actors like Puru Raj Kumar who's splendid as Umrao's roguish in-house suitor at the kotha, and Divya Dutta melting your heart in that 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 far this young Bachchan has evolved .

Flipsides

But Vaibhavi Merchant's choreography (a mainstay in the Mujra-motivated mellow-drama) lets down the tawaif's tale. It fails to evoke the sensuous grace that Rai is capable of . Too much of Javed Akhtar'r evocative lyrics are expressed in hand movements. It's like using just the toes for a swimming competition where the contestant knows every move of the game.

Jha judgment

For creating an Umrao who stays in our hearts and for giving Aishwarya Rai her fifth memorable role(after Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Chokher Bali and Provoked ) J.P. Dutta must take a bow.

This is a film that does the Movie Moghul and Hindi cinema proud.

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