Umrao Jaan

Director: J.P Dutta
Year: 2006

Sometimes beauty and tragedy don’t mix. That is perhaps why this tragic tale of a 19th century courtesan never quite works. Played by Aishwarya Rai, one can never really feel her emotional pain because you are so overwhelmed by her luminous beauty. Sure the character’s life is full of disappointments and hardship but she always looks so good and dresses so well that you can’t really feel sympathy for her plight. Particularly when she is crying (which she does often) and the camera lens lights up those glistening moist sad eyes like beacons of vulnerability. The eyes of Aishwarya Rai are legendary. Emerald green like a south sea lagoon, they dominate the screen at times like a Panzer division invading France. If watched on the big screen they are as large as a country house and more inviting as she uses them like stealth bombers to entrance and dazzle the audience with their sheer brilliance. But though they can make us tremble, they can’t make us cry and that is the issue here.

Based on a classic novel and having been made once already starring the great Rekha, this female centered story feels like an unusual choice for director J.P. Dutta who has previously made his fame and fortune with macho action stories. Perhaps he goes too far in escaping those traits as he creates a somewhat laborious and sanitized world of the courtesan life. The film luxuriates leisurely in its stunningly lush interior details, glamorous fashions, period look and lyrical mood, but does so at a snail’s pace that seems happy just to be. Running over three hours in length, the film at times feels like it needs a good kick in the pants to send it on its way. But at the same time it does look so damn fine that you really don’t mind all that much.

In similar fashion to “Memoirs of a Geisha”, the story concerns itself with a young girl named Ameeran who is kidnapped from her loving family and sold into a brothel in the city of Lucknow. This is not just any brothel though, but the top of the line kind where the women not only bowl men over with their beauty but also with their ability to charm and entertain. The brothel owner (Shabana Azmi) welcomes the newly purchased girl into her caring “family” with loving words and a change of name to Umrao. She is handed into the care of a childless couple to bring up in the proper courtesan way where she will learn how to snag a man’s heart with poetry, singing and dancing as well as of course with seduction – all the characteristics that we men find so appealing in courtesans and are so hard to find nowadays.

As she grows up, she turns into a glorious butterfly in the form of Aishwarya and though in truth the over-30 Aishwarya is perhaps too old to play this fledging girl on the cusp of womanhood it is hard to imagine anyone else in current day Bollywood taking on this role. It is one of such immaculate grace and porcelain beauty that it seems made for her. Finally, the day comes for Umrao to have her virginity sold to the highest bidder – and the anxious Umrao only worries that her innocence will be purchased by an old man. She is presented to the local elite in an artistic dance performance that stuns them and makes her the talk of the town. The bids are in and the lucky winner is . . . Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) - come on down - who has become totally smitten with her and is all too easily persuaded to hand over large gobs of cash to be with her. He woos her with his casual smile, lap dog eyes and an ability to stab a rude man through the stomach – and she quickly returns his affection and they both promise to love each other forever. They also of course have sex and she gets to add Jaan (beloved) to her name. If love could only be so easy, but things unravel after he is disinherited by his father leaving him penniless and the noxious mascara-eyed Faiz (Suniel Shetty) begins to fawn over her.

But this supposed grand love story never takes hold – it has no weight and seems very small in this otherwise large scale film. It happens so quickly and seems so obviously doomed from the onset that the audience isn’t given time to climb on board and care - and the Nawab is in truth rather a shallow lad who loves lavishly on the wealth of his father. The only real emotion that impacts is when years later Umrao returns to her small hometown to visit her family but as Thomas Wolfe puts it, you can never go home again. Clearly the center of the film is this unfulfilled love but it is everything else that surrounds it that is of much more interest – the courtesan life, the finery, the life style, the political brothel infighting, the entertainment, the poetry, her brothel “family”, the mutiny but that all gets pushed far into the background for most of the film.

Aishwarya actually does a fine job here and it’s no fault of hers that her beauty makes everything else feel small by comparison. Her dancing needless to say is divine and her costumes are ornate exclamation points. The music from Anu Malik is solid on an individual level – each of the many songs are lovely poetic ghazals – but as a mix their needed adherence to fit into a period film makes them all sound too similar in style and after a while they sort of begin to blend together. This is a beautiful film to gaze at and immerse yourself in the loveliness of Aishwarya, but it will rarely touch your heart or inspire you.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Song from Aish Version

Song from Aish Version

Song from Aish Version

Song from Rekha Version
Song from Rekha Versiom