J.P. Dutta is one of the finest storytellers around. Right from his directorial debut GHULAMI to his last release L.O.C., J.P. has had the courage to narrate stories that excite him first and foremost. Some films worked, some didn’t. But J.P. continued with his practice of choosing subjects that not many dream merchants would dare to dream.
Quite obviously, UMRAO JAAN, his latest outing, evokes tremendous anxiety. Sadly, it’s bound to meet with diverse reactions/feedback…
UMRAO JAAN has sensitive performances, it is visually rich with the bygone era captured beautifully on celluloid and the stamp of a master storyteller is visible in crucial scenes. But there’s a flip side too. It’s not a enriching, satisfying and fulfilling experience, it’s toooooo long [20 reels; 3 hour + duration], has too many songs and lacks the power to keep you hooked in entirety.
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In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that the lethargic pacing coupled with the unnecessary length make UMRAO JAAN a bejaan experience!
A courtesan and a poetess in her own right, Umrao Jaan [Aishwarya Rai] was a name to reckon with in Avadh. If Lucknow was the heart of Avadh, Umrao was the heart beat.
When she first came to Lucknow, she was Amiran, the eight-year-old daughter of a lower middle class family. Her father [Parikshit Sahni] was a jamadar at the ‘Bahu Begum ka Makhbara’ in Faizabad. A pious and simple man, he gave evidence in a case against Dilawar Khan [Vishwajeet Pradhan]. Dilawar was sentenced to jail for ten years. After finishing his sentence, Dilawar came out, only to kidnap little Amiran, cart her to Lucknow and sell her to a kotha owned by the astute Khanum Sahib [Shabana Azmi]. This was the vengeance and a few rupees as bonus. “Let her suffer a death worse than a death,” he said.
A kotha in that age, especially that of Khanum, was not only a cultural hub known for excellence in performing arts but also a temple of learning -- learning the art of living. As an inmate of the kotha, little Amiran benefited the most. Khanum gave her the name ‘Umrao’, Bua Hussaini [Himani Shivpuri] brought her up in style, Maulvi Sahib [Kulbhushan Kharbanda] imparted education, Khan Sahib initiated her into the world of music while the great Kathak Acharya made her feet move to rhythm.
In the company of Bismillah [Divya Dutta], Khurshid [Ayesha Julka] and Gauhar Mirza [Puru Raaj Kumar], Umrao developed varied skills including poetry. The pen name ‘Ada’ was ample proof of the proficiency in writing and presenting poetry that she went on to acquire.
Graduating in years, Umrao became a rage in Lucknow. A beauty that was stunning, a manner that was enticing and words that were soul stirring, made the name of Umrao Jaan mean sheer joy of watching and listening.
Stepping into youth, she had to seek the love of her life. His name was Nawab Sultan [Abhishek Bachchan]. With the whole of Avadh at her feet, Umrao craved for Sultan’s company. Somewhere deep inside her, she had a dream of a husband, a family and a home. She chased her dream from one end of the rainbow to the other.
But there were hiccups in the form of a dacoit Faiz [Suniel Shetty], who was smitten by Umrao. Subsequently, the misunderstanding with Nawab Sultan takes place. Later, the war of independence makes her homeless. And much later, her mother [Maya Alagh] and brother disown her. Amiran is forced to become Umrao Jaan again.
UMRAO JAAN takes off on a positive note. The story of the little Amiran, who is kidnapped and sold to a kotha in Lucknow, is sensitively depicted. The entire track -- sequences with her parents and also with Khanum [Shabana] and Bua [Himani] -- unravel beautifully. Then Sultan walks in Umrao’s life. Love is in the air. You begin to ponder: UMRAO JAAN is akin to a poem on celluloid.
Romance takes over and the story comes to a grinding and screeching halt. Two/three songs flow in one after the other. You start getting restless and impatient. Agreed, J.P. had to be faithful to Ruswa’s literary work. But the songs are completely unwanted and only add to the extra length. The sad part is, Anu Malik’s music, although in sync with the film, comes across as an unwanted guest in the narrative.
The turning point comes in the form of the Sultan’s father, who disowns him. An interesting twist in the tale. The dacoit walks in, he wants Umrao at any cost. He even convinces her to come along and spend a month with him. She agrees. Interesting. Sultan gets to know the half-truth. He’s upset. He shuns her. She returns back to Khanum. Okay.
The war of independence breaks out. Umrao reaches Faizabad. Her home-town. She comes face to face with her mother and brother. She weeps, they’re not convinced. Sadly, the emotions don’t touch the heart here. You don’t feel sorry for Umrao. She gives her last performance in Faizabad. One more song. Ideally, the movie should’ve ended with Umrao walking out of her house and her brother slamming the gates on her face.
If J.P. deserves meritorious points for drawing sensitive performances and also taking you to 19th century Lucknow, you want to deduct many points for the slow and tiresome narrative and also unwanted scenes and songs. As an editor, J.P. fails to keep you hooked. The film can easily do without three/four songs and also a few scenes. Ideally, a 25/30-minute trimming is a must!
Anu Malik’s music is a minus point here, partly because people want to listen to the story and the songs here add to the boredom. O.P. Dutta’s dialogues are exemplary. Dutta Sr. is a supremely gifted writer and his work in UMRAO JAAN stands out in every sequence. Costumes [Anna Singh and Bindiya Dutta] are rich. Cinematography [A. Bose] is flawless. The sets [Bijon Das Gupta] are topnotch. Choreography [Vaibhavi Merchant] is commendable.
Aishwarya Rai looks ethereal. In fact, it’s after HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM that Ash has looked heavenly and performed so convincingly. She emotes through her expressive eyes and the consistency in her performance is evident from start to end. This can easily rank amongst her prized assignment in her repertoire.
Abhishek Bachchan is up to the mark, although one strongly feels that he’s capable of so much more. Shabana Azmi is superb, especially in the sequence when she insults Abhishek [minutes before the intermission]. Suniel Shetty doesn’t get much scope. Nevertheless, he’s alright. Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Himani Shivpuri lend good support. Divya Dutta and Ayesha Julka leave a mark in brief roles. Parikshit Sahni, Maya Alagh, Vishwajeet Pradhan and Javed Khan are passable.
On the whole, UMRAO JAAN has a weak first half and a tolerable second. But the damage done by the first half [unwanted songs and scenes] creates a major dent, which the second half tries to repair, but cannot. At the box-office, the film will appeal to a miniscule segment of moviegoers [gentry] in a handful of multiplexes, but the wide majority would give it thumbs down due to its unnecessary length [20 reels; 3 + hours’ duration] and lackluster treatment. Given its low hype and poor start at the ticket window, the film will incur losses for its investors.