Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Music of Umrao Jaan - Sublime

When J.P Dutta announced Anu Malik's name as the composer of his version of Umrao Jaan (based on Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa's celebrated urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada), I was a bit apprehensive. But this time the apprehension was not about Anu's calibre – his association with J.P Dutta has never been short of magical, after all. I was more concerned about his ability to compose something that could live up to the standards set by Khayyam in the 1981 version of Umrao Jaan. If Anu could achieve even a fraction of what Khayyam and Asha Bhosle achieved 25 years ago, that would be enough to wipe off all the sins he might have committed by imposing his noisy 'inspirations' on us.

When I first listened to Anu's score for J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan, my most obvious reaction was to directly compare it with Khayyam's. Then I thought to myself, is that fair? Can I listen to - and enjoy - this score without any comparison? It was difficult to start with, but then I asked myself one question. What if this score belonged not to 'Umrao Jaan' but some other film based on the life a courtesan? Could it then qualify as a good score? The answer is a resounding YES!

Anu Malik's compositions for Umrao Jaan are melodious, deceptively simple yet multi-textured, and truly Indian. In keeping with the setting of the film (19th century Lucknow), the instruments used are all Indian and the compositions are based on Hindustani classical music without being too self-indulgent. His compositions do complete justice to Javed Akhtar's delicately worded ghazals. This is probably the first time Anu Malik has tried his hand at the ghazal/mujra genre, but he doesn't let his inexperience show.

Mirza Ruswa's Umrao Jaan 'Ada' was a poetess in her own right, who mostly composed her own poetry for her public performances. Her poetry was neither profound nor philosophical. Given the fact that she had to entice her audiences with her performances and at times flirt with them, she always wrote on traditional ghazal themes of love and betrayal, using metaphors and imagery that are well established in the ghazal world. Javed Akhtar has done an outstanding job at penning some truly evocative ghazals for Umrao Jaan. The language is simple, and the thoughts traditional; yet with his careful choice of words he has penned couplets that you can instantly relate to without struggling to delve into deeper meaning. This reflects a perfect grasp of the story, where an amateur poetess composes poetry to woo her clients or to express her sorrows and heartbreaks.

For example, the lines below: perfect couplets for the debut performance of a courtesan – teasing, coquettish, yet maintaining a veil of decency.

First, in a boastful manner she tells her lover that one glance from her is enough to make people her slaves, yet she has fallen for him.

ये दिल है जो आ गया है तुम पर वगरनह सच ये है बन्दापरवर
जिसे भी हम देख लें पलट कर उसी को अपना ग़ुलाम कर लें

Then she changes her tone and challenges him to be 'a little audacious' so that their name is also immortalized like the legendary lovers, Laila-Majnu or Shirin-Farhad. (A professional Tawa'if would say these lines in a manner that every one in the audience would believe that they are addressed to him)

वो लैला मजनूँ की हो मुहब्बत कि शीरीं फ़रहाद की हो उलफ़त
ज़रा सी तुम जो दिखाओ जुर्रत तो हम भी उन जैसा नाम कर लें

Or, the lines below, where Umrao urges her lover not to 'show' her any dreams if he can't 'show' her their meaning/ fruition...

या तो ताबीर बताओ मेरे सब ख़्वाबों की
या कोई ख़्वाब इन आँखों को दिखाया न करो

...and then goes on to complain that her lover comes to her only as a matter of routine.

अभी आये हो अभी बैठे अभी जाते हो
सिर्फ़ इक रस्म निभाने को तो आया न करो

There is one song in Umrao Jaan that I'm confused about. It's a brilliantly worded Avadhi song about the plight of women, but the whole concept of a girl urging God not to make her a girl in her next life is entirely alien to the milieu. Umrao Jaan is essentially a story of Muslim characters and Muslims do not believe in rebirth. I wonder how Javed Akhtar, a Muslim himself (though a very secular one), could overlook that aspect! Maybe the film will explain some of this. Till then, this remains my only problem with the songs of Umrao Jaan. Yet, it's outstanding poetry. Read these poignant lines:

अब जो किये हो दाता ऐसा न कीजो
अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो
हमरे सजनवा हमरा दिल ऐसा तोड़िन
ऊ घर बसाइन हमका रस्ता मा छोड़िन
जैसे कि लल्ला कोई खिलउना जो पावे
दुई चार दिन तो खेले फिर भूल जावे
रो भी न पावे ऐसी गुड़िया न कीजो
अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो

No analysis of the music of Umrao Jaan can be complete without a word about the voice of Umrao – Alka Yagnik. Despite a very good voice, Alka Yagnik was beginning to fall into the rut of similar sounding songs which did not give her any opportunity to explore new grounds. With Umrao Jaan, Alka Yagnik has reinvented herself. She sounds mint fresh and imbues just the right amount pathos to her renditions. If Lata and Asha immortalized the tawai'f (courtesans) of Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan (1981) with their voices, Alka almost achieves the same status in J.P Dutta's version.

In my opinion Anu Malik's Umrao Jaan is one of the best Hindi film soundtracks of 2006 (along with Vishal's Omkara). I just wish J.P Dutta has been able to do with the film what Anu-Javed-Alka trio has achieved with the music of Umrao Jaan. One more week to go…