A connoisseur’s item that deserves fest play beyond the usual Bollywood circuit, 19th-century courtesan drama “Umrao Jaan” marks a major bounceback by writer-director J.P. Dutta after his over-long war drama “LOC: Kargil” (2003). Classily staged remake of a 1981 classic, toplined by Aishwarya Rai in a peach of a role, demands more patience than usual mainstream Hindi fare but rewards the viewer with fine perfs and a story that engages emotionally over the three-hour span. Big-budgeter ($4.4 million) opened coolly in India Nov. 3 but has grossed a respectable $780,000 in the U.K. in four frames.
Original 1905 work by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa was the first great Urdu novel, memorably adapted by director Muzaffer Ali in 1981, shooting actress Rekha to superstar status. Dutta retains some of that version’s changes from the book — making the heroine a softer, lovelorn character — but tries to reflect the novel’s flashback-like structure by having the courtesan narrate her story (from behind a curtain) to a listener.
Main story opens in Faizabad, in Uttar Pradesh, with 8-year-old Ameeran kidnapped by Dilawar Khan (Vishwajeet Pradhan) in revenge for being jailed due to court evidence from her father (Parikshit Sahni). Dilawar carts her off to Lucknow, where he sells her to Khanum Saib (vet actress Shabana Azmi), head of an upscale kotha (brothel).
Renamed Umrao, Ameeran is trained in music, dance, poetry and social etiquette by her adopted “parents,” Maulvi Sahib and Bua Hussaini (Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Himani Shivpuri), and in the third reel morphs, hey presto, into actress Rai. Early scenes lightly sketch rivalry between Umrao and other girls, Bismillah (Divya Dutta, good) and Khurshid (Ayesha Julka).
In color-coordinated costumes that are eye-watering even by Rai’s usual standards of movie apparel, Umrao becomes the toast of the town, and is chosen for a solo song-and-dance (mujra) for a local dignitary, Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). He falls for her and she — against all the rules — falls for him. When Sultan has to flee town after knifing another man and is later disinherited by his father, another nawab, Faiz Ali (Suneil Shetty), sets his eyes on Umrao.
Second half, which has more physical action, spins on Umrao agreeing to partner with Faiz Ali while still hoping to reunite with Sultan. Moving coda, climaxing with her performance of a mujra before dignitaries in her hometown, brings the emotional arc of Ameeran/Umrao full circle.
With lighter makeup than usual for a period story, radiant Rai shows a naturalism usually found only in her contempo comedy-romances, and is light years from her perf in the top-heavy “Devdas.” Of the men in Umrao’s life, Shetty shows the most character and Bachchan a dignity beyond his years. But it’s Azmi, as the regal kotha madam, who contribs the classiest and sincerest perf beyond Rai’s.
Pic also benefits from shooting on actual locations (in Lucknow and Jaipur), giving it a more natural look than the 1981 production (all shimmering costumes and stagey glamor). Color processing is rich without being over-cooked — like watercolors rather than oils — though a few sequences have an over-bleached look. Copious musical interludes are succulently staged in regional style, sans Bollywood overkill.