Friday, December 30, 2011

Umrao Jaan (1981 & 2006): A Courtesan's Tale...Times Two

Well, this was a Bollywood first for me: I've seen two versions of a film and am able to do a comparison. The 1981 and 2006 versions of Umrao Jaan! Forgive any spottiness in this post as I watched the 2006 remake in September and the 1981 version about three weeks ago with spotty subtitles.

If you don't already know… The films are based on a 1899 Urdu novel (often considered the first Urdu novel) called "Umrao Jan Ada" (امراؤ جان ادا) by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, and there is some dispute about whether an actual courtesan named Umrao Jaan existed (as Ruswa claimed). In the story, Amiran is from a modest family in Faizabad, and an enemy of her father captures her and sells her into prostitution at a Lucknow brothel in 1840. Renamed Umrao, she grows up to become a charming courtesan, and she steals the heart of Nawab Sultan, with whom she falls in love (earning her the "Jaan" in her name). But the match is obviously not an approved one and Sultan marries to please his family instead. After a sort of mishap with another would-be suitor who turns out to be a bandit, Umrao returns to Lucknow but finds it under attack by the British and flees. She attempts to return home but her family rejects her, so she goes back to the now-looted Lucknow brothel with only her poetry and courtesan's arts. Rekha plays Umrao in the original 1981 film, and Aishwarya Rai plays her in the 2006 film; Farooq Sheikh plays Sultan in 1981, and Abhishek Bachchan plays him in 2006. (Also interestingly but not necessarily importantly, Shabana Azmi plays the role of brothel owner Khannum Jaan in the 2006 film after her mother, Shaukat Azmi, played the same role in the 1981 version.)

Coming into two versions of the same story, I naturally expected to like one better than the other. It didn't actually happen. There were aspects about each film that I thought were better than the other.

I couldn't even decide which version made more sense in terms of displaying the plot. The 1981 version did a better job portraying the early sections of the film and explaining what was happening while the 2006 version did a much better job handling Faiz Ali (the bandit suitor of Umrao after Sultan marries) and fleeing Lucknow.

The 2006 version, however, has a confusing, poorly done and entirely unnecessary framework. The film sets up the story as being recounted by an old and frail Umrao (Aishwarya in makeup that does not make her look old enough) to a man who is intrigued by her poetry and wants to know her sob story. This is actually a reference to how Ruswa framed the original novel, saying that Umrao Jaan herself recounted the story to him when he met her in early 1899. However, it's completely unnecessary for the film and doesn't work well.

That being said, the poetry of the 2006 film was handled much better than that of the first.

Very ironically, Rekha and Aish actually remind me of one another. Both of them have very similar expressions in a lot of ways (watch them both work the eyebrows in videos below!), and each woman managed to bring me to tears (well, figuratively; perhaps we shall say move me) at different moments. Aish's Umrao has moments of palpable loss where you can just feel how grief-stricken Umrao is, and Rekha's Umrao flies at Sultan and begins tearing his clothes in a fit of anguish and anger but manages to stand resilient at the end, but refusing to give up her dignity though she has nothing else. (Let it be known, however, that even I, who am no expert in such things, hate Aishwarya's poor Urdu accent, but Rekha's didn't bother me.)

In one remarkable place, there is a disparity in the acting: the lovers' chemistry. For a film that was released a mere two months before they were married, the chemistry between Abhi and Aish is virtually nonexistent through most of the 2006 film. A chemistry was more visible between them in 2003's Kuch Naa Kaho and they weren't even dating then. I was seriously amazed at how little sizzle there was between them here. Amazed. The chemistry between Rekha and Farooq Sheikh was definitely better.

This is as sexy as it gets. He's hatless.
However! While I respect the differences in times that these were released, I must commend the 2006 film for realizing that a film about courtesans means suggesting sex — and that's OK! In the 1981 version, Umrao and Sultan are shown fully clothed (in LONG SLEEVES even) underneath a blanket. Ridiculous! Even close-ups of just faces or of Sultan caressing Umrao's unbound hair (which is shown in the same long-medium shot where you get them undercovers fully clothed) would have made more sense. I literally burst out laughing — bad reaction to a supposedly sexy scene. The 2006 version uses shots of Sultan and Umrao's intertwined hands and such to much better effect.

That of course brings me back around to the prostitute thing, which I find interesting because Bollywood seems to have this…thing with prostitutes. One of these days, I want to do a post exclusively dedicated to Bollywood's prostitute obsession and why I think it exists. I think it actually goes back further than film, considering such classic literary works as "Devdas" and this film's basis, "Umrao Jan Ada," focus on prostitutes or courtesans (and I asked for translations of "Devdas" and "Umrao Jan Ada" for Christmas; there's a chance I may still get them).

And speaking of prostitutes, I find this somewhat sad, but I thought both movies were just gorgeous. I had to keep reminding myself the women were prostitutes. Which is not pretty. And speaking on pure aesthetics, the 2006 version wins, especially for costuming (some of the 1981 version's costuming looked off-time-period to me) and using the setting well on-camera.

And you probably know this, but both films are definitely worth watching just for their songs (which you can find on YouTube). Once again, I find it sad that this is so, but "Salaam" from the 2006 version is probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. The mujra style is, well, fascinating.

And here's what I think is my favorite performance from the 1981 film: "Yeh Kya Jagay Hai Doston" — so much raw emotion.


  1. I completely agree with you on the chemistry between Aishwarya and Abhishek in the 2006 film. However, this movie was released in 2006, they were married in 2007. And speaking of prostitutes, there's another movie with Rekha called Utsav. I've only seen part of it for a South Asian history class I took, so all I know is that she's a prostitute in the movie. But her character seems similar to those of Umrao and Chandramukhi in Devdas

  2. Nice, I had been waiting for a comparison of the two films for a long time, as I have only seen the 2006 version and didn't find it as bad as others.
    The songs and respective dance sequences are the best thing though, I listen to them all the time. Shabash! (I think that's Urdu, isn't it?).

    Aishwarya and Rekha are two of my favorite actresses, both so beautiful and talented. I did find Aishwarya a little too weepy though, but that's more a complaint to the director.

    Actually, you make me want to re-watch this one. And of course finally watch the old version.

  3. I've not seen the 1981 version but I would like to now that I've seen what Rekha was actually capable of. Yes, definitely much raw emotion in this dance, and much grace. I'd only seen her sashay down the red carpet in the OSO party song before! But for dancing, and that is mainly what the 2006 version is all about, you can't beat Aish. She's just amazing! So controlled and precise and expressive; she must have spent hours and hours rehearsing. I showed the Salaam clip to someone yesterday and then showed him Crazy Kiya Re, to show what an incredibly versatile dancer she is. Hard to believe it was the same woman in both.

  4. Gwennie: Yes, Abhi and Aish were married in January 2007. Umrao Jaan was release din November 2006. And thanks, I'll look into Utsav. But prostitutes do crop up everywhere! Some others I can think of off the top of my head are Pyaasa and Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.

    Mette: I was very sad to see how much most people seemed to dislike the 2006 version. I agree with some of the criticisms (like Aish's Urdu accent is terrible), but I still enjoyed the film. Like I said, I enjoyed both versions in different ways. And yes, shabash is an Urdu word. But I think, considering the film, "waa! waa!" is a more appropriate response. ;)

    Joss: This was actually my first brush with Rekha (other than the cameo in Deewangi in OSO). But I was definitely impressed. And yes, Aish's dancing is very hard to beat (ironically she's married to poor dancer Abhishek) and she constantly amazes me with her versatility in dancing and in roles.