Sunday, November 05, 2006

Umrao Jaan - A Mixed Bag

First, let's get a few facts right:

  1. J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan is not a 'remake' of Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version; it's another interpretation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa's novel. The screenplays of the two films are completely different. If there is anything common, it's the fact that both Ali and Dutta have taken creative liberty to change the tone of the original story to romanticize the character of Umrao Jaan and transform her into a tragic lovelorn heroine. Both follow the same adaptation 'device' of modifying the chronology of events and putting actual events from the book in a different context to lend more sadness to the protagonist's character.
  2. Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version was not a commercial success. Despite a plethora of well-deserved awards (except the hugely controversial National Award for Rekha), the film's business was below average (my memory fails me, but I think it was probably a box-office disaster…but, then, when did box-office returns become a measure of a film's quality?).
  3. Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version is not the 'original' adaptation of Ruswa's book. It's only the most well-known and authentic. There have been two eminently forgettable attempts before that – Mehndi (1958) and Zindagi Ya Toofan (1958).

It is important to keep the above in mind because many film journalists, with their shocking lack of knowledge and unpardonable disdain for research, would have us believe the contrary.

Now let me get to J.P Dutta's adaptation of Umrao Jaan. In my earlier post on Don I have made my disdain for comparisons very obvious, but that's precisely what I would end up doing here. However, I would compare J.P Dutta's film with the book which it is adapted from, and not Muzaffar Ali's film. If any reference to Muzaffar Ali's version comes up, it will only be in the context of the book. (I have only read Khushwant Singh and M.A Husaini's English translation of the book, so any observations I make about the book or any lines I quote are based solely on that reading)

J.P Dutta's film follows the same narrative structure as the book, where in her twilight years Umrao Jaan tells the story of her life to the author – Ruswa. In that respect J.P Dutta tries to be closer to the book than Muzaffar Ali. I was quite pleased with the way J.P Dutta chose to start his film. The initial unfolding of events was quite true to the book, except for the complete elimination of the character of Ram Dei – a girl who forms a short-lived bond with Umrao in captivity before she is sold-off to a rich Begum. The character of Ram Dei is quite important in the book, as she re-surfaces at a later point in the story to accentuate the irony of fate. So, in eliminating the character of Ram Dei from his film, Dutta set the stage for major changes that were to follow. As the movie progressed, one could see more changes creeping into the story.

I'm all for making changes to literary works to suit the medium of celluloid, so long as it doesn't alter the spirit of the original writing. Interestingly, both Ali and Dutta had to 're-arrange' their scripts (even though the re-arrangements in the two versions were very different) for exactly the same reason. They both wanted to focus on the romance between Umrao Jaan and Nawab Sultan and had to 'create' a plausible reason for their separation. In the book, Umrao offers no explanation. She simply says, "Alas! the heavy hand of separation fell upon our union" and moves ahead with her story. How could a love-story, especially the one that forms the crux of the film version, end so abruptly? So both Ali and Dutta play with the chronology of events, borrow from other episodes within the book and transmigrate them to the story of Umrao and Nawab Sultan. Quite innovative you might say, but Dutta goes a step further and creates a few entirely new events to add twists to the story. While that lends certain logic to the story as it unfolds, it transforms Dutta's Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) into someone completely unidentifiable with Ruswa's Nawab Sultan.

Also, the liaison between Umrao and Nawab Sultan had its foundation on their mutual passion for poetry. In the books their romance unfolds through a series of poetry sessions. But J.P Dutta's Sultan comes in purely for physical pleasure: his love is driven by lust, it seems.

Over-emphasis on the Nawab Sultan episode by Dutta - and also to some extent by Ali - does gross injustice to Ruswa's book. Ruswa's book portrays Umrao Jaan as a courtesan who has liaisons with several men during her life because of her profession. While she remembers each of them fondly, and probably even alludes to an extra soft corner for the Nawab, she does not admit to 'real love' for any of them. When she looks back upon her life and narrates her story to Mirza Ruswa, she does so in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of any self-pity – a far cry from her melancholic narration in Dutta's film. In the book she is "a woman of experience who has slaked her thirst at many a stream (ghat ghat ka paani piya hai)" who confesses that "no man has ever loved me nor did I really love any man" because she is "but a courtesan in whose profession love is a current coin". Now how can one create a tragic heroine out of a person like this without making significant alterations to the text? But why did Dutta have to make Umrao Jaan into a chaste courtesan who sleeps only with the love of her life – Sultan – and takes a vow of fidelity? What on earth happened to Gauhar Mirza, who was the "first one to pluck the flower"? Or Nawab Rashid who was fooled into believing that he was the chosen one to initiate Umrao into the profession by "deflowering" her? Or Faiz Ali who loved her (Umrao too continued to pretend that she really loved him)? Or several others who appear either as specific characters or mere mentions in the book?

Dutta seems quite confused about how he wants to project the kotha. The kothas of 19th Century Lucknow also played an important role as schools of culture and etiquette where young nawabs were encouraged to go to learn about performing arts and culture, in addition to learning the "facts of life". Dutta's kotha largely focuses only on the aspect of flesh trade. Yet, when it comes to portraying Umrao, he tries to transform her into a Pakeezah (the pure one).

The main problem with Dutta's script is that most characters have either not been properly developed or altered significantly. Gauhar Mirza (Puru Raj Kumar), Bismillah (Divya Dutta), Khursheed (Ayesha Jhulka), Faiz Ali (Suneil Shetty) – all had significant roles to play in the literary Umrao's life, but in the film all except Faiz Ali get very marginal roles, almost as if their presence was only incidental. Even Faiz Ali's character has been changed drastically. Except the fact that he's a dacoit who Umrao elopes with, every single aspect of his character and role have no relation to Ruswa's story. Ditto with Gauhar Mirza. The only character who comes across just the way Ruswa envisioned is Khanum, played with characteristic ease by Shabana Azmi.

After reading so much criticism of J.P Dutta's script, you might think that I 'hated' the film. Actually not. There were definitely some aspects of the film that I enjoyed, but each of these aspects had a flip side to it. For a moment, let me put comparisons with the book aside, and try to evaluate this film as an 'original' screenplay.

First and foremost, I appreciate Dutta's good intentions of exposing today's generation to the beauty of urdu zabaan and lakhnawi tehzeeb. It takes courage to do an Urdu film, in an age where Hinglish is fast becoming the lingua franca of people. It's a pleasure to hear the main characters of Umrao Jaan mouth dialogue in chaste Urdu. The problem is that except a few – Shabana Azmi and Aishwarya Rai who has evidently worked hard on her diction – no other actor can carry it off. At many places the lakhnawi flavour of the language is missing. And even chaste Hindi words like maan-maryada creep into the dialogue at times.

Next, the production values of the film are quite good. The sets are opulent, the costumes and jewellery exquisite. While the film is a visual delight, the objective of recreating 19th century Lucknow is not achieved. Nawab Sultan dons a Pathani look, Faiz Ali is more Afghani, and despite J.P Dutta's best effort, the Rajasthani element ends up making brief, yet damaging appearances in the art decoration. I was quite amused by the objections being made by some people from Lucknow about the side-parting of Ash's hair or the topa she wears or Nawab Sultan's turban, but after watching the film I tend to agree with them that spirit of Lucknow is missing from Umrao Jaan. Interestingly, though lakhnawis claim that Nawabs never wore a turban in Avadh, Mirza Ruswa in his book clearly mentions that when Umrao first sees Nawab Sultan he's wearing a "turban of gold brocade". So did Dutta get it right? Not really, because the golden turban Abhishek wears is worn in a Rajasthani style.

The narration of Umrao's story demands a bit of thehrav, a relaxed unfolding of events. That calls for some patience on the part of the audiences who are used to instant gratification. I don't blame people if they find the film very slow moving. However, I think J.P Dutta got carried away and completely forgot that a slow film need not be boring. Some of the sequences are so long drawn out that one loses interest after a while. When Nawab Sultan returns to the kotha in a drunken state, his scene with Umrao takes boredom to new heights. I wouldn't mind even a 15 minute scene where Umrao and Nawab might just exchange poetry or converse in high-flown Urdu. But here, there is no poetry to appreciate, there's no delicacy of zabaan to relish, and there's really nothing consequential going on. It hurts. The film is so long that by the time the film ends, it seems that you've been sitting at the theatre for ages. I did not get bored because I was carefully listening, analyzing and appreciating the language of the film. But for someone who does not appreciate Urdu it can be quite a torture. This confirms my belief that when the same person handles the editing and direction of a film, the film suffers because the director invariably takes over from the editor. We saw that in the recent Jaan-e-Mann and now again in Umrao Jaan, and even in some of Raj Kapoor's films.

I am probably one of the very few people who have liked Anu Malik's music in Umrao Jaan. After watching the film, people are cursing the movie even more because they think the songs add unnecessarily to the length of the film. I disagree with this. The songs, and the lyrics, are the highlights of this film. Instead of dialogue, the narrative moves through songs. If Umrao wants to say something, she says it through a ghazal (remember, Ruswa's Umrao is a poetess). I also think very highly of Vaibhavi Merchant's choreography. Her steps, movements and gestures are full of ada, as one would expect in a film about a 19th century tawa'if. However, I would have loved it even more if during the classical music interludes and 'thekas/ todas' of some of the mujras, she had focussed on the dancer's footwork instead of shifting the camera to the other characters.

Aishwarya looks stunning as Umrao Jaan. It is also evident that she has worked hard on her performance and dialogue delivery. I always considered her as a beautiful face with no acting talent. But in Umrao Jaan she is quite good, if only by her standards. So while it cannot be rated as a great performance in absolute terms, coming from Ash it certainly is a good job. Sadly, Abhishek disappoints big time. And I wouldn't only blame the script for that. His performance is very flat, something one doesn't expect from an actor who has shown considerable improvement over the years. The only actor who is consistently good in the film is Shabana Azmi (what else did you expect?)

On the whole, while J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan has some positive aspects to it, it doesn't come across as a genuine attempt at recreating Ruswa's novel. And the length of the film, just kills it!