11 November 2006 | akbarnali
Rai shines, but Dutta fails a Legend.
Poor Aishwariya Rai. To have had to suffer the indignity of being "the most beautiful woman in the world." It may sound like I'm being excessively sarcastic, but you're only half right. Rai, like many other actors before her, has had to contend with preconceived notions of her artistic abilities. What makes her unique is that she has also had to contend with the very thing which has brought her so much international attention: her looks.
Unlike India's other major screen mavens renowned for their beauty (Madhubala, Rekha, and Manisha Koirala among them) Rai's ethereal charms have consistently been lodged against her as proof that she is nothing but a plastic mannequin with the emotional range of a Barbie Doll. And until recently, her detractors have largely been right.
Bhansalli's "Hum Dil Dechuke Sanam," for all its puerility, showed that Rai deserved the title of "performer," if not "actress." His follow-up, the heinous melodramatic bloat called "Devdas," gave a glimpse into what was possible for Rai under the right set-up: she was, and remains, the only thing worth watching in a film that should have been called, "Paro." And now "Umrao Jaan" finally brings the inner being out which pronounces the arrival of Aishwariya Rai "the actress." While one may question J.P. Dutta's motives for filming a story already memorialized as a classic, one does not question his casting of the lead. As Ameeran/Umrao Jaan, Aishwariya at last achieves that elusive but indispensable acting necessity: emotional nudity. Regardless of whether one agrees with the film or the character, she cannot be faulted for turning in a hollow, soulless, or canned performance. Here she is fully in character, physically, aesthetically, emotionallyeven psychologically. And while the film is melodramatic, Rai is decidedly not. She delivers the superficial necessities of the eponymous courtesanbreathtaking beauty and grace, and dances which are embodiments of bothbut her performance is never subdued by the surface features of Umrao Jaan. Witness the scene in which she is repudiated by her aristocratic lover in his drunken stupor: the dual conjuring of disbelief and anger as she spits out the refrain, "Vah Re, Kismat" ("Oh, Fate.") is perfect in its subtlety. Barely moving her lips to deliver the curse of her fate, Rai demonstrates that she is capable of much more than is customarily delegated her way.
The film features a few lightweight actors, like Sunil Shetty, who is woefully wooden and miscast. One cannot help but pine for a menacing Shah Rukh Khan or a grunting Abhishek Bachchan in the part of Faiz Ali. Bachchan is, of course, present as Nawab Sultan, Umrao Jaan's only true love. Sadly, he delivers an uninspired portrayal of an aristocrat tormented by his desire for a courtesan. Dutta's casting is way off here as well. Sultan is frankly the kind of part screaming to be played by Ajay Devegan or Akshaye Khanna.
Much has been made of the fact that Shabana Azmi is playing the part of brothel keeper which her mother played in the 1981 film. Unfortunately, Dutta conceptualizes the part from a much more clichéd stock "mother" stereotype which lacks the bite and deformed morality which made the original so interesting. Perhaps a Rekha or Sridevi would have made the part more deliciously dramatic, making this a film about the forging and destroying of female bonds in a misogynistic world, rather than a romanticized portrayal of prostitution which ignores the fundamental questions of a woman-identified sanctuary for women in 19th century India. We'll have to wait until the story is absorbed by experimental feminist cinemaoddly enough, Muzaffar Ali's film deals with these issues rather lucidly. One thing I'd love to see is an adaptation by a female director- Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta could work unique wonders with such a story.
But back to Dutta. The main drawback of his film is its script. It is constructed as a chaptered retelling of the life of Umrao Jaan who recounts her memorable journey to the man who would later memorialize her in print. The film revolves around a ho-hum love story thrown on top of an absolutely awful introduction in which the kidnapped Ameeran inexplicably accepts her place in the brothel because it offers her material opulence. How many sheltered 10-year-old girls will accept the position of prostitute-in-training? Not many, I'm glad to say, but Dutta's film explains away the young victim's angst or torment as though she had been peddled off for a day at a carnival. Whatever the realities of life were for 19th century working class girls, the flippant caricature offered by Dutta was most definitely not it.
Comparisons between Dutta's and Ali's films are difficult to maintain, yet unavoidable. The plot/characterizations are sufficiently different, yet one cannot help but think of the peerless Rekha as Umrao Jaan. Despite Rai's earnest performance, designer costumes, and modernized mujras, Rekha continues to literally own Umrao Jaan. Few scenes can compare to Rekha's wordless devastation in the moment her lover has come to invite her to his wedding. Her longing, yearning, and rage all rally in her eyes as angry tears and she tears away Sultan's shirt without revealing the heart she longed to conquer. Not a single moment in Dutta's film approaches the depth of this scene, and so Dutta will have to settle for the embrace of the moment, if not of history.
The same holds for the film's music: Anu Malik's compositions are fine works of music, no doubt, but there are frankly too many of them and offer little range. Javed Akhtar's lyrics, however, deserve special mention, particularly the final lament "Poochrahe Hain Poochnewale." The final stanza of "Patthar Ab Kya Phenk Raheho, Hum Pehlese Zakhmi Hain" (Why do you cast your stones when I am already wounded?) bespeaks the brilliance that *should* have been. Alas.
And so the final word is that Aishwariya is a revelation, but the film tells us something we already know: a classic cannot be remade.