Friday, February 23, 2007

the original Umrao Jaan

I found Umrao Jaan remarkably restrained (but not constrained, an important difference, I think) despite its potential for trauma-drama-o-rama (like in the recent Devdas). The story makes me very uncomfortable, and Rekha's balanced performance made it even harder to bear, since we so seldom see her respond with the volume of feelings she must be suffering. As other people have pointed out, the historical role of the courtesan can be very hard to get our modern brains around. The contrast of her position is so interesting: one one hand, she's trapped in a career/life that she does not choose (and of course in this instance she was forcibly made to enter), but on the other, her training and position give her skills that transport hearts and minds through imagery and emotion.

For the first time in the approximately 125 Hindi films I've watched, I wanted the movie to be longer. I didn't quite get on board with Umrao and Nawab Sultan's love. I don't know the book at all, so I don't know if they're supposed to be tragic lovers on par with those in Devdas (sorry to keep referring to that), but I didn't quite see it. Of course, the movie is fairly understated in some ways, with a lot of emotions implied rather than expressed (and certainly not verbalized), so maybe I was supposed to assume something about their passion. I found him to be a bit of a wet blanket, and while I don't know if it's useful to compare this movie to the recent remake, I thought Abhishek Bachchan was much more powerful - and just plain interesting to watch - in this role.

At least, that's what I thought until I talked to Filmi Geek, and (to paraphrase) she proposed that the recent Umrao Jaan is a romantic-trauma-drama spin on the story and the earlier one is much more feminist, with Umrao's romance as just one component of her life. I like that assessment of the two versions of the story - and would love for someone to tell me about the book (my reading list is too long to add it at the moment) - and I think it can explain, or at least classify, a lot of the differences. As I did with Don, trying to view these as two unrelated movies is going to save me some headaches (if in fact I care about the differences, and I'm not sure I do).

Everyone talks about Rekha - whom I have actually seen very little of, and I know I'll have this performance in the back of my mind as I see more of her - but I want to put in a good word for Naseeruddin Shah, who in my opinion makes even the most unwatchable junk fun (Asambhav, anyone?). What were we to make of Gohar Mirza and Umrao's relationship, I wonder? I liked that they at least had some real affection for each other, even if it was more sibling-y than romantic. This was the element I had a hard time not comparing to the 2006 version (which I saw first, by the way), because that version of the character struck me as full-on creepy.

I'm not sure I actually enjoyed watching Umrao Jaan. Despite its beauty, it hurt. Her pain was not the type I empathize with it's impossible not to feel for her.

Aside to people who have seen this several times or have good memories: d
oes anyone know if there's something going on with bird symbolism in the movie - the caged bird singing and all that?

5 comments:

Anandini said...

I think w/ the old Umrao alot of us that grew up on Bollywood are probably just so fixed on Rekha's performance that it was really difficult to accept Ash's. The songs were total classics. That being said, I actually liked the new one although it most definitely ran too long, even for me. I DID hear that the actual book of Umrao Jaan focused more on her life and the Nawab was a minor part of the story.

If you liked Naseerudin and you haven't seen it yet (I haven't checked your list), you MUST see Masoom (I think it's from the early 80s) - he and Shabana Azmi were totally tremendous in it, and it's worth it for seeing Urmila Matondkar and Jugal Hansraj as child-stars.

Aspi said...

While I've never had the patience to sit through Umrao Jaan, I thought the cool thing about Rekha was that even when she was playing essential downtrodden stereotypes, you could see a bit of a flash in her eyes that told you something was afoot and our heroine wasn't as helpless as she appeared. Perhaps, she seemed to be telling us, *I* am the one manipulating everyone here. And that was both attractive and nerve-wracking.

carla said...

Thanks for linking me, m'dear. I agree with your assessment of *Umrao Jaan* v.1981 as difficult to watch. It's one of those films that is just very mean to its heroine from start to finish.

I have to second anandini's recommendation of *Masoom* - it's one of my favorites. :) It is also quite cruel to its heroine - it blindsides her and puts her in an impossible position - like Umrao, through no fault of her own, whatsoever.

Stella, from Houston, TX said...

I have not seen the original but referring to your comment about the caged bird; a caged bird has always represented restrained beauty or talent. For instance, Umrao is beautiful and intelligent, but for the rest of her life, she will be caged by her life as a courtesan. In other words, her life as a courtesan will forever barr her from being free despite the fact that she is intelligent and beautiful. As I understand it, the courtesan is like the beautiful bird that cannot fully express its beauty because its been caged. Sorry for going on and on, I am an English major.

Gauri Radha said...

This is one of those Bollywood movies I saw over and over and over when I was little. (Some of the others were Pakeezah, Nagina, Betaab and Guide. And many many more!!)

I remember arguing with my sister over which dance to watch, the red-costume or the white-costume one. Huge arguments Lol

The Kathak dances in this movie were lovely, as were the songs. Some of them still make my mother cry when they come on during yesteryears Bollywood song programs on TV. In particular the song where the lead character goes back to her hometown and meets her mother.

Now I feel going back and re-watching this!!