Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Suneil Shetty
Direction: J P Dutta
Director JP Dutta has been insisting that his new film Umrao Jaan is not a remake of Muzaffar Ali's fabulous 1981 film starring Rekha. And truth is, he's more or less right. Dutta's film which opens at cinemas this week is a more faithful adaptation of Urdu author Mirza Hadi Ruswa's novel about a young girl who's kidnapped from her happy home in Faizabad and sold off to a brothel in Lucknow where she's groomed to become a courtesan.
In Dutta's film, Aishwarya Rai plays the doomed damsel who – apart from the fact that she's got a raw deal in life, finds out that she's unlucky in love too. She catches the fancy of dapper nawab Abhishek Bachchan, but alas their romance isn't meant to be. As she discovers in the end, once a lonely tawaif, always a lonely tawaif.
The thing that hurts the most about JP Dutta's Umrao Jaan is that it's far too synthetic and as a result, you really can't relate to Aishwarya's pain. Not when she's kidnappned and sold off as a little girl, not when her romance comes crashing down like a pack of cards, not when she's shunned by her own mother when she returns home and not at the end when she finally settles into a life of loneliness.
Now, the funny thing is that for her part Aishwarya sobs her eyes out from the very beginning, up until the very end. She simpers and whimpers and yet you’re just not moved.
In contrast, you're reminded of Rekha who in the earlier film suffers in silence all along, holding back her tears till the very end, thus building up to a big climatic moment when your heart goes out to her.
In the new film, Umrao's sad life story is narrated in flashback by Aishwarya herself who puts on her heavy voice and punctuates her story with sniffles.
If Umrao Jaan fails then it's because it's a placidly told story without either passion or pathos. It's so matter-of-fact actually that you just sit there in your seat in numbed silence waiting for the lights to go back on.
The only real feeling you're overcome with is boredom because Umrao Jaan is not so much a film as it a series of songs strung together by a few scenes here and there.
The romantic scenes between Abhishek and Aishwarya are so childish, you yawn through their bedroom banter. And that drunken scene of Abhishek's in which he reveals to Aishwarya that he's been banished from his father's home is just unintentionally hilarious.
Of the main actors, Suneil Shetty is horribly miscast as the dacoit-in-nawab's clothing, he performs his one significant scene with the intensity of a light bulb.
Meanwhile, Shabana Azmi hams it up as Khanum Jaan, the owner of the brothel, a role she plays so camp, that you're almost embarrassed for her.
Then there's Abhishek Bachchan, who's mostly stiff, but he's also saddled with a badly written character because you don't know if they want him to play the gallant hero of the piece, or the spineless guy who can't take a stand.
And finally, as Ameeran, the girl who's turned into the dazzling Umrao Jaan, Aishwarya Rai is listless and ineffective. Her character lacks any depth whatsoever and she fails to engage you in her story. She dances like a dream, but where Rekha brought sex appeal to that role, Aishwarya brings vacant stares.
Despite the eye-pleasing camerawork and some hummable songs, this film is one big bore. At a running time of three long hours, the movie is far too indulgent and often feels like a dose of slow poison.
It's a big thumbs down for JP Dutta's Umrao Jaan. For everyone who criticised the director's last film LOC for being way too long and way too boring, guys you ain't seen nothing yet. Honestly, iss Umrao mein koi Jaan nahin!