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Umrao Jaan lives on, and on, and on...

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POET'S DREAM: J. P. Dutta's "Umrao Jaan" blends Aishwarya Rai's beauty with a raconteur's skills.
POET'S DREAM: J. P. Dutta's "Umrao Jaan" blends Aishwarya Rai's beauty with a raconteur's skills.

ZIYA US SALAM

UMRAO JAAN

(At Shiela and other Delhi theatres)

Mirza Ruswa's good old novel continues to breathe new life into our ailing filmmakers. Some 25 years ago Muzaffar Ali adapted it so beautifully to the silver screen that he came to have a life-long association with "Umrao Jaan". It did for him what "Mughal-e-Azam" did for K. Asif, "Pakeezah" for Kamal Amrohi; a never-before, never-again essay for a secure place in the annals of Hindi cinema. Now J. P. Dutta, not exactly in the prime of professional life following "LoC", adapts the novel to the big screen for the fourth time.

This is a much more ambitious venture, and Dutta takes some cinematic liberties with the text and context of the novel: there are some oversights as in gumboots for the hero, a hand-pump in the 19th Century for the heroine. Some inadequacies of research: his courtesan shows more skin in 2006 than Rekha did in the early 1980s, and some of the costumes are stereotypes for period films. The much talked about kimkhwab, the age-old ghararas, are replaced with shararas in many sequences. The haath phool with four rings is tampered with too. As is the mehndi which used to stretch well beyond the wrists then but is reduced here to just a dab on the tip of the fingers, a little mound at the centre of the palm. And Anu Malik's music is too fast-paced for the not so fast era.

But wait: do not write off Dutta's "Umrao Jaan". There are these blemishes, yes, as indeed is the length of the film: some dispassionate editing could have lopped off some 20 minutes. But these are mere asides. At its soul, body, even content, this "Umrao Jaan" is as beautiful as its leading lady, the one who once had the world at her feet.

Hosannas to her beauty might sound like weather bulletins now, but here Aishwarya Rai undertakes the difficult job of doing Rekha's role. And manages to hold her own. Despite the obvious repetition, isn't she beautiful! If in "Devdas" she teased the moon for being more beautiful, she was right. The moon has its blemishes, Aishwarya her glow. Eyes with the depth of the sea, tresses with the darkness of the night, and fingers extending an invitation her lips won't voice. Here she shows two dancing eyes in her opening mujra, "Salaam karne ki aarzoo hai, idhar jo dekho salaam kar lain... ." The camera lingers on her face, taking note of each twinkle in her eyes, paying a tribute to those dimples, now backed by the virtue of spending a few years in spring!

Never the greatest of actresses, Aishwarya makes a valiant attempt to bring the angst, the anguish of the woman rejected by all: her family, her lover, her buyer. Yet having the magnanimity to forgive each of them. It is the story of a girl who dared to love on the streets where lust is bought and sold in lieu of love. But Dutta goes beyond the hackneyed, courtesy a novel that left many with a heavy heart and brimming eyes. Aishwarya does an adequate job in most sequences, reserving her best for the final showdown with the hero - Abhishek Bachchan. In those fleeting minutes she reminds you of Rekha. Then settles to be Rai, happy with her beauty, working within her limitations. Those, incidentally, include her pronunciation, with Aishwarya mixing her `khh' with `kh'. Urdu certainly is not her forte.

Talking of performances here, there is none better than Shabana Azmi's. As Khannum, the livewire Madam at the brothel, she is superb. With her, the film goes up a notch or two. She creates her own canvas. While Aishwarya uses her eyes to communicate, Azmi uses every part of the body. Her shrugging of the shoulders, her simmering anger, her mischievous glances all lend an unmatched depth to the film.

However, the film suffers on other counts beyond foibles of research. Its male characters are second fiddles: Abhishek is a misfit as a nawab. Come on, Farouque Sheikh was just so good in Ali's film. Puru Rajkumar is not even a shadow of Naseeruddin Shah as Gauhar, the man who loved Umrao. And Sunil Shetty as Nawab Faiz does the role with the same indifference he shows in countless potboilers where he arrives and departs in all fury. Pity, they reduce Dutta's film to just a female show.

Never mind. "Umrao Jaan", all dressed up and beautiful, is still fetching. The story has feeling; the narration is not inadequate. And between Aishwarya and Azmi we get some moments when we forget all the debate whether Umrao Jaan Ada was a real-life woman born in Faizabad and now buried in Varanasi, or just a figment of Ruswa's imagination. Never mind. As a poet said, "Ishq fanaa kaa naam hai ishq mein zindagii na dekh... " She is still a dream. Book your date with "Umrao Jaan". The graces, the ada, the haya, the nazakat, the nafasat are all there.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

(At Spice PVR, Noida; and Delhi theatres)

What an enthralling spectacle! What a feast for the eyes! At its best, it is visual delight. Each frame is well conceived, the camera is such a wonderful companion, it is incisive without being intrusive. Tall, stately trees in stark green, daggers flying across with the surety of an arrow... all present a spectacle seldom matched on the big screen.

At its worst, director Zhang Yimou's film is still an engrossing tale of intrigue, deception, revolt. Set in the 9th Century, this Tang dynasty story is more than just a love story. And more than just political intrigue. The dynasty faces rebellion from the House of Flying Daggers. There is Zhang Ziyi, beautiful as ever, as much at ease with eyeliners as daggers. And a dancer to boot! With her is Takeshi Kaneshiro's Jin, claiming to be Wind, who can fly across at will, slay at whim. He wins her trust. And love. But then... .

Yes, there is enough novelty woven into the plot to keep the viewers interested right till the end. It begins on a visually brilliant note, ends with master storytelling. Certainly the kind of film worth going a few miles to watch.

THE DEPARTED

(At Wave, Noida; and Delhi theatres)

Lead actress Vera Farmiga tells us truth is not synonymous with honesty. But here one can say in all honesty that Martin Scorsese's film first deceives, then flatters, pleases, thrills. In the first hour or so you catch up with all the expletives you thought had been confined to the local sleaze street. There is barely a sentence without an obscenity. You squirm, you grumble, but hold on. Hey, this is said to be Scorsese's best film, it cannot be so bad!

Yes, patience pays and a movie you thought was worth giving a wide berth picks up life, energy. Even some cerebral points. And we get a film that keeps us hooked on to the proceedings till the end.

Starring Jack Nicholson - he is his usual self-assured self - with Leonardo DiCaprio - he is flamboyant, cocky -- this is the story of two men from opposite sides of the law who are undercover within the Massachusetts State Police and the Irish mafia. It is no game of hide-and-seek though with moles being there to discover the true identity before the inevitable bloodbath.

Watch it as much for its cast as the director's masterly handling.

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