In essence Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 classic ‘Umrao Jaan’ can be called the story of a prostitute, or to be more precise, the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold and the soul of a poet. Not getting into the morality of the lead character’s profession, one could say she is simply a little girl lost, confined within the walls of a brothel whose only escape is her heartfelt poetry and the undependable lovers who share her bed.

The longing for love, is a theme which many film deals with and is probably the most cliché foundation to use when dealing with the life of a prostitute. However, in the context of Umrao Jaan’s story, it is the most applicable base to start from.

The film is based on the 1899 novel ‘Umrao Jan Ada’, written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa; it has also been called the first novel in the Urdu language. Ruswa claimed that it was based on the true story of a courtesan named Umrao. How much truth there is to that claim, we will probably never know, but if there was a real person named Umrao Jaan and if this story is anything to go by, then she truly must have been a tragic figure.

Umrao Jaan was not born a harlot, as no prostitute ever is, but by a cruel hand that life deals her, she becomes one. Her life started as a young innocent girl named Amiran, who is kidnapped by an enemy of her fathers in Faizabad and then sold to a brothel in Lucknow. In such an unenviable position, she is reborn and schooled into a courtesan. Dancing, singing and generally being submissive to would-be customers are the ways of the trade, but it is poetry that is her passion. This passion initially is kept secret and only revealed to those close to her, but gradually it becomes a trademark and in the end, as it turns out, a means of livelihood for her.

But poetry is not the only thing that keeps her heart beating; it is love and a feeling of being wanted by other men that means as much to her. Sadly for her, words chosen in forming prose of poetry is far more easier than choosing a lover. This she learns the hard and bitter way. Whether it is the scoundrel Gohar Mirza (Naseeruddin Shah), the charming but weak Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh) or the rogue Faiz Ali (Raj Babbar), all the men in her life let her down. Yet, despite these setbacks, she manages somehow to lift herself up, gather the shattered pieces and start all over again.

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The setting of the film is 1840s Lucknow, where changes are afoot throughout the subcontinent, yet the world of a courtesan remains frozen in time. The Nawabs still visit brothels and entertain themselves with prostitutes, who in turn carry out their duties as those before them have. None truly care about what the prostitute feels or what she goes through, its business and pleasure mixed together in a cruel environment. Save for perhaps Nawab Sultan, a person of the aristocracy and a delicate peacock whose sensitive personality complements that of Umrao Jaan’s. Being of the upper class, he can indulge in the guilty pleasure of visiting prostitutes, but cannot marry one because of the scandal it would cause.

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Knowing this hard fact, Umrao Jaan tries to find comfort in the arms of another man named Faiz Ali. Wanting to escape the brothel, she runs away with him, only to find out that he is a wanted bandit who is ultimately killed. It seems her choice in men is very poor, to put it bluntly. With no other course, she returns to her brothel and continues her life as a prostitute. That, however, doesn’t last long. After Lucknow is attacked by British forces during a siege, Umrao Jaan is forced to flee as a refugee to a village near Lucknow, which she later learns is her birthplace, Faizabad. By a strange circumstance Umrao Jaan finds her mother and brother. While the mother sees her young daughter Aimran and is elated to meet her, her brother only sees the prostitute Umrao Jaan and refuses to acknowledge her as his sister, telling her to leave and never come back. Ostracised by yet another man, this time her own brother, she returns once again to her brothel which by now has been exploited and abused as much as Umrao Jaan herself.

At the heart of this movie is obviously Rekha, who was probably never been more beautiful or more powerful as she is in the title role. Bringing just about the right amount of naiveté, disillusionment and composed defiance, her performance makes this movie click and like the shining sun, has the other characters revolving around her. Her seductive eyes and exquisite features project all the elements needed to bring Umrao Jaan to life. Add to this her acting chops and Urdu dialogue delivery, and you have a class act that is truly timeless. Rekha, apparently had to work hard at her Urdu to make it believable and it shows.

The other woman who really shines in the film is Shaukat Kaifi who plays Khanum Jaan, the madam of the brothel where Umrao Jaan lives. Lying down on floored cushions with a hookah in her mouth and using her acid tongue to manipulate people while imposing her will on the brothel, she is truly magnificent. As a nod, her daughter Shabana Azmi played the same role in the rather forgettable 2006 version of the tale.

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The set pieces, cinematography and of course music are top notch. Due to the sad tale, the use of colour is not very prominent. ‘Pakeezah’ the other great movie about the life of a courtesan, was far more effective in using colour as a medium of symbolism in showing the environment a prostitute lives in. But that was perhaps more of a necessity in showing a tale of fiction and fantasy rather than basing it on reality. ‘Umrao Jaan’, however, is kept as real as possible. If director Muzaffar Ali’s aim was to show the brutal and harsh world that a prostitute lives in, then, he certainly achieved that in spades.

Although not the most spirit-lifting film there is, ‘Umrao Jaan’ is undoubtedly a classic and one that deserves to be seen again and again.


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