Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Suniel Shetty, Himani Shivpuri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda
Dir: JP Dutta
In naming his 1905 novel Umrao Jaan Ada, its author Mirza Ruswa had bestowed upon his heroine a unique attribute. While the French would describe the quality rather meekly as je-ne-sais-quoi (a certain I-don’t-know-what), the English take recourse in a smart-aleck turn of phrase: The X factor.
None of the languages, however, can touch the nuances of the Urdu word ada that combines matchless beauty, exquisite charm, a remarkable mastery over art and still leave room to pack in a lot more.
JP Dutta’s redoubtable heroine, unlike Mirza Ruswa’s, remains sadly untouched by the connotations of ada. And so, what might have been the role of a lifetime becomes a non-performance. Of the kind that one has got rather used to from the actor.
Ash looks lovely when she smiles. She looks lovelier when she cries. Dutta’s screenplay — which runs into 180 excruciating minutes — allows her to do both in good measure. But where is the celebrated 19th century tawaif of Lucknow whose untold sufferings could do nothing to strip her of her dignity?
Where is the woman whose life is fraught with tragedy that leaves her saintly in forgiveness in the end? Our search for that unparalleled character remains an unfulfilled one. And Ash is just as clueless as we are.
This in spite of the fact the actor has worked hard on her Urdu and Kathak. While the former seems to roll effortlessly off her south Indian tongue, the linear grace of the latter finds a suitable medium in her tall and graceful frame.
If Umrao Jaan’s relationship with Sultan Nawab (played by Abhishek Bachchan) is based on their love for poetry — as Muzaffar Ali had told us in his 1981 classic — there is little of that in Dutta’s version.
Minus the compelling power of poetry, the love scenes between them seem unendurably long. And when Bachchan Junior finds himself under the spell of alcohol — like the one in which they cannot decide who is ‘ghulam’ and who the ‘master’ — they are positively boring.
Anu Malik rises to the occasion — a nautch girl-drama of epic proportions does not happen to music directors every day — and so does Alka Yagnik, who is heard in almost every track (except the last one which is sung soulfully by Anmol, Anu’s daughter). But there are just too many mujra numbers to hold attention.
Though comparing the film with the 1981 magnum opus is not fair, what does one do with a baggage of incredible weight? One simply remembers it again and decides to go back to it once more. For its poetry, beauty, charm and history. One goes back to it for its ada. One wants to return to Umrao Jaan.