Umrao Jan Ada: A Review
Directed by: J.P. Dutta
Dear oh dear, them Injuns are at it again. Making wholly unnecessary and uncalled for cinematic remakes, that is. After the butchering of Devdas at the hands of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and the misguided ‘reworking’ of Don by Farhan Akhtar, it is now well-known misogynist filmmaker J.P. Dutta’s turn, and he has a go at an even more sacred cow, namely Mirza Haadi Ruswa’s quasi-feminist courtesan saga Umrao Jan Ada.
Was Dutta under the impression that he could perhaps better Muzaffar Ali’s much loved 1981 adaptation? While that one certainly had its flaws, it’s a flippin’ masterpiece compared to this painfully maudlin version. No, it’s probably much more likely that Dutta thought it would be an easy sell and that too with the (questionable) casting coup of Aishwarya Rai and her real-life squeeze Abhishek Bachchan as the titular heroine and her lost love. Unfortunately, what we get as a result is just what one would expect to emerge from that kind of visionary thinking: an unintentionally hilarious, screamingly inept piece of work that is an unsightly verruca upon the careers of all involved.
Where Ruswa’s (and Ali’s) Umrao was a sensual, fiery creature who took pride in herself and her art (mainly poetry), and knew and used full well the power of her adas and nakhras, Dutta’s heroine (Rai) is a simpering, lovelorn, laughably self-righteous idiot who wallows, nay, exults, in her perceived victimhood – so maddeningly passive that you want to land her a swift kick in that ludicrous mod gharara of hers. Mope much, do you?
Her lover Nawab Sultan (Bachchan) doesn’t fare much better either. The book and the 1981 film painted him as an eager and susceptible green-around-the-gills naïf who admits gauchely that he doesn’t frequent kothas. What we have here is a pseudo-sophisticate, man-of-the-world who might as well be wearing a ‘been there, done that’ t-shirt under his rather ill-conceived achkan. Think Jay Gatsby in a pugree and with no personality.
With the script being what it is – sound, fury, nothing – and the characters robbed of all emotional poignancy, you can pretty much see the actors floundering to keep themselves afloat – a fruitless exercise. The two lead players are pretty but boring and shallow – merely gazing goggle-eyed at each other while spouting supposedly profound declarations of undying love does not a great romance make – all smoke(screen), no fire. The usually delightful Himani Shivpuri as Bua Hussaini is annoying in the role earlier essayed so memorably by the late great Dina Pathak. Shabana Azmi as Khanum Jan, while a notch better than her fellow cast mates, is not a patch on her mother Shaukat who played the same part in the original. Puru Raj Kumar and Sunil Shetty as Gohar Mirza and Faiz Ali respectively, are hopelessly miscast, with Kumar in particular getting a raw deal having been given the unenviable (and insurmountable) task of bettering the fabulous Naseeruddin Shah.
Dutta also manages to make a hash of the film as a period piece with seemingly no research going into the design or look of the film at all. From the garish sets and horrendously filmi choreography, to the ‘what-were-they-thinking?!’ costumes (Bua Hussaini seems to wearing shalwar kameez with court shoes most of the time) and cheap, costume jewellery – it’s all a royal mess, especially when you consider the painstaking detail with which Muzaffar Ali embellished his film. And of course it’s a well-known empirical fact that all kotha inhabitants of Lucknow favoured gilori as their main form of sustenance. At least that’s what the film seems to suggest. It’s a wonder they don’t all die of mouth cancer. And oh yes, Mirza Ruswa is shown as a doddering old man listening to Umrao tell her life story, when in fact he was only in his late forties when he wrote the book. Eyebrows. Raised. Way high.
Criminally, maestro Khayyam’s exquisite and highly revered song score is replaced by the insipid musical stylings of Anu Malik.
But just for a minute, forget the fact that Dutta and co don’t bother to retain even 5% of the story’s historical and social context; forget that they chuck out virtually every element of the book except the characters’ names. Forget even that none of the cast, barring Azmi, can deign to get their Urdu pronunciation right, those dreaded khe and ghain tripping them all up repeatedly. But you can’t overlook that even taken on its own, this is basically a third class, hackneyed Bollywood version of any generic tawaif story (a lousy one at that) with the romance at the heart of it so hollow that it doesn’t even make for a credible love story. Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada was the journey of a remarkable woman. J. P. Dutta’s Umrao Jan is a vacuous nautch girl in love.
Mr. Dutta, I would like those lost three hours of my life back.