The presence of courtesans which are deeply entrenched in popular culture has been time and again fascinated Bollywood filmmakers and it has been reflected in the movies as well. "Umrao Jaan" is a stunning piece of art which beautifully captures the time period of the 19th century Lucknow. The story of Umrao Jaan is adapted from the Urdu novel "Umrao Jaan Ada" written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa which was first published in 1899.
The Hindi/Urdu film "Umrao Jaan" tells the story of a courtesan set in Lucknow of the early 19th century. The film begins as a young girl known by the name as Amiran in 1840 when she is kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Lucknow. Amiran is brought to Madam Khanum Jaan's brothel in Lucknow, where her name is changed to Umrao Jaan. Umrao Jaan (Rekha) now grows up to be a very talented singer, an exceptional dancer and a brilliant poet. She becomes a much sought-after tawaif (courtesan) known purely for her dancing skills and poetry.
The movie follows the tragic life of the courtesan Umrao Jaan who is uprooted from her family and brought into a completely different world where her only purpose is to make others happy. She assumes the role of a lonely soul in a crowd and poetry becomes her channel to express her pain, love, longing and disappointment. The ghazals by the Urdu poet Shahryar are beautifully penned to express these emotions and have now been marked as fine examples of Urdu literature.
Rekha simply takes acting, dancing and expressiveness to a level which only she can create. The film truly deserved her. Rekha comes out with flying colours while expressing joy, pain, love or any emotion embodied in the film. Her phenomenal acting dwarfs even Naseeruddin Shah as Gauhar Mirza comes to look like an average role and a talented actor like Farooque Sheikh touches the heart with a controlled performance as the Nawab.
The film is a ghazal on celluloid and it beautifully expresses the pain, loneliness and passion without touching the extremes. Urdu mehfils, timeless ghazals, eloquent shers, hookahs, dazzling costumes, elaborately done houses and brilliantly choreographed Kathak performances take you back to the 19th century Lucknow. A lot of credit goes to the art director, costume designers and make-up artists for recreating that time period so wonderfully.
Umrao Jaan will make you leave with a very heavy heart. The hypocrisy of the society which uses prostitutes for satisfying carnal pleasures but refuses to acknowledge their presence and feelings which is sensitively and subtly depicted in the film. Umrao Jaan is one of those few rare movies which will survive even after a million years. It is a movie that takes art to a celestial level. It is a movie that will leave you with a very heavy heart without a trace of melodrama. If filmmaker Muzaffar Ali were to recreate the movie again, I doubt if he would get it as close to perfection as he got it the first time. Umrao Jaan has a right blend of poetry, pain and pleasure. If you haven't watched this movie, you're definitely missing a classic.