I saw it again, after 25 years! I think it is one of the best movies (Indian or otherwise), at par with any famed-Satyajit Ray. It should NOT be even compared with the new Umrao Jaan. The problem is that it is so good that Muzaffar Ali (the producer from Lucknow where most of the movie unfolds) perhaps cannot make a better movie all his life.
The film is very restrained, and therefore, a believable story of a Lucknow tawa-if (courtesan, geisha). There are no brave heroes (all flee 1857 Sepoy Mutiny against the English), the robber Faiz Ali dies in an unheroic escape. Owner of house of tawaifs, Madam Khanum, is selfish and exploitative. Nawab Sultan, one of the first clients of Umrao, sees Umarao what she is - a tawaif and abandons her with no compunctions to marry into the wealthy family of her cousin; others hurl insults at Umrao. There is a thin line (if any) between a tawaif and a prostitute/hooker - Umrao sleeps with Nawab Sultan as a matter of routine, and then with the robber Faiz Ali.
Urdu poetry (ghazal) is shown to be pervasive in the lives of tawaifs and all around her. The dialogs are in lyrical, delicate and local Urdu, difficult to be appreciated in translation. Acting is superb by all. Songs and Indian Kathak dances (minus one by Nawab Sultan) are mostly in context.
Good movies like good books can enrich and teach. Most Indian movies are trash, fantastic escape from reality but not old Umrao Jaan. You could see Lucknow of a bygone era. Sample these:
- pigeon flight contests (or kabootar baazi, a flock breaking pigeons mid flight from a rival flock) - Indian hop scotch (ikkal dukkal) - the earthen stove (or choolha) - the custom of eating with hands in the kitchen on the floor near choolha - the custom of offering for a saint's shrine (nazar at durgaah) - the custom of arranged marriage between Muslim cousins - the custom of purdah, - the custom of eating betel leaf (or paans) and hookah smoking - the tradition of sellers of bangles and shawls coming home - the incompetent and indolent nawabs who would sell part of the estate for a courtesan
See it if you have not yet; see it again if you have once. Technically, the photography is not as high quality as now - but then in 25 years movie cameras have improved a lot.