It’s not as if audiences have a blanket ban on period films or remakes—the deplorably gaudy remake of Devdas was a hit. Then what did they have against Umrao Jaan? How did they know beforehand that the film would be a long, boring and not worth their time? One of the unsolved mysteries of showbiz.
J.P. Dutta has made some fine films in the past, and has the reputation for being a good director-- an actor’s director-- which is why he usually manages a line-up of stars for his films. But obviously, somewhere down the line he lost his grip on the new generation of viewers, and today’s audiences are not just unforgiving (entertain us or else!) they are also not too prone to nostalgia. A filmmaker is judged by his current offering, not by his past work.
In the midst of technically savvy, business-minded young filmmakers, does Dutta languid, old-style filmmaking stand a chance? Could his dry, rambling pseudo-epic about a 19th century courtesan appeal to the masses? Sometimes a film’s box-office fate is not commensurate to its quality; unfortunately in this case, one can’t even say that the film was good but didn’t work for some unfathomable reason. After all, Muzaffar Ali’s far superior Umrao Jaan, did not exactly set the box-office on fire (though it did fetch its leading lady Rekha the National Award) but it is remembered as a masterpiece.
A young girl was kidnapped and sold to Khanum’s (Shabana Azmi) kotha (bordello), where she grows up well cared for, educated and accomplished in music, dance and poetry, the toast of entire nawabi Lucknow. This is supposed to be a fate worse than death? Dutta, basing his film on Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel, neither explores the social attitudes of the period, nor gives the story a contemporary perspective.
For him the doomed romance between Umrao and Nawab Sultan sweeps aside all else—and if that was his focus, it should have had the grand tragic, operatic feel of Pakeezah or Mughal-E-Azam—both about nobleman falling in love with courtesans.
Umrao was a poet at a time when women were not into artistic pursuits—that aspect of her personality does not come through at all. Why does Nawab Sultan fall in love with her? In Dutta’s film she is just like any other courtesan, perhaps better dressed and better looking, but of no extraordinary merit. Why does Umrao develop such a passion for him on just one meeting? Just because she was expecting a doddering old nawab and found a handsome young man paying for her virginity? Dutta is so busy with creating background opulence, that nuances of the romantic relationship that forms the core of his story are ignored. The film moves out the kotha so seldom, that the 1857 Mutiny breaking out looks tagged on—why is there no indication of the gathering storm?
From Dutta’s version of the life of Umrao Jaan, it is not clear why this woman’s story inspired a novel, four films and a couple of stage plays. She is just a pitiful weakling who keeps sighing “Hai ri kismat” when things go wrong. Today’s audience needs and deserves a better heroine.