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Classic becomes mundane

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NUANCES MISSING: Umrao Jaan
NUANCES MISSING: Umrao Jaan

NILOSHREE BISWAS

JP Dutta's `Umrao Jaan' ends up being a mere love story with a period flavour.

Umrao Jaan, in Muzaffar Ali's epic, portrayed a character of strength, who at the end had stuck to her stand of not merging with the mainstream family structure. Though this decision came from the refusals of her loved ones, Umrao Jaan in Ali's movie evolves as an independent character continuously on the lookout for a space of her own. Such portrayal needs gender sensitivity on the part of the director. Can J.P.Dutta portray the same or will this remain only as a failed love story of a courtesan?Umrao stands in front of a huge mirror as the camera captures her, she steps closer to wipe the dust on it... with a slow swipe the dust is removed to reveal Umrao Jaan Ada's exhausted face. And that is one of the brilliant cinematic moments. Muzaffar Ali's 1981 masterpiece is among the few gender sensitive portrayals of women depicted in Indian cinema.Ali's Umrao Jaan is a wronged woman who till the end does not succumb to the pressure of confirming to the mainstream. As and when mainstream refuses to accept her, she bounces back with a sort of spontaneity that has an underlining element of vengeance towards `the other'. Paradoxically Umrao gets self-destructive as she loses out on the recall value of her clientele who form her immediate world. Muzaffar Ali's empathies are all for Amiran (Umrao), who till the end continues to fight to find a space for herself within her `world'. Muzaffar`s protagonist is on a self-journey, on the lookout for her identity. Curiously, on occasions, when she is just feeling secure, the stability is ruptured.This becomes a systematic element in the narrative from the beginning of the film. Her forced displacement from the `home` to the `kotha' is the most crucial physical form of displacement.

Gains in confidence

From her traumatic days of being kidnapped and then finally being settled in the world of `mujrah' and coquettishness, Umrao gains confidence as she slowly converts herself to a cynosure. She becomes the epicentre of the revenue generation within Khanum`s the head lady) world. Soon the filmmaker harps on the courtesan's aspirations to nurture a family. Umrao is no exception. She looks for the cozy space in her paramour`s world but is refused an entry.What she thought to be a journey of transcendence from a `kothain' (inmate of Kotha') to a wife turns unfruitful, and she has to conform to her former identity. To Umrao, her `would-be-wife' or fiancé role was the most important, to the extent that once shattered she loses her sense of physical and mental space and almost gets into an existential crisis. The `kotha' world where she thought she belonged, was increasingly marginalising her.Her continuous effort to escape from this identity has been depicted by Ali in a sublime manner. Lucknow, her geographical space, is lost as Nawab Sultan is married to a `good woman' as opposed to the bad woman, Umrao. Umrao is not only heartbroken but also desperate to rejuvenate her lost identity. She moves to Kanpur to establish her world. A chance meeting with her estranged lover discourages her to take up the internal struggle that she had decided to. Individual displacement later escalates to mass migration against the 1857 backdrop, thus converting self into community.

Identity crisis

Ali in his beautiful treatment manages to touch upon the protagonist's identity crisis inflicted by several emotional and physical displacements. As Umrao Jaan Ada stands at a crossroads, Muzaffar Ali epitomises her as an ultimate tragic character, a woman in search of her long lost identity and space. The remake does not delve into multi-layered persona of Umrao and portrays the character as a lovelorn nautch girl only. Neither does it explore the grey shades of the existential crisis nor does the protagonist elevate herself from a courtesan to a woman of substance. In Muzaffar Ali`s `Umrao Jaan,' Umrao was acknowledged as a `shaiyara' (poetess), even at the risk of losing her only source of livelihood. The remake understates the cerebral aspect of Umrao Jaan, failing to resurrect her above the `tawaif' category.

Liberty taken

Just because she is a prostitute, the filmmaker takes liberty to even get her raped, with continuous highlights on the stereotype of the lead male character getting away with chauvinism. Necessarily Umrao Jaan need not be glorified but she definitely is a complex and interesting character, not mundane and linear as the remake casts her.JP Dutta fails to handle the character in the right light, neither making her tragic nor showing the multiplicity of human mind at work. `Umrao Jaan' of 2006 would be at best remembered as a poor man's remake of the classic or a love story with a period flavour.


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