Monday, March 19, 2007

Umrao Jaan

Since there is a dry spell around me, someone recommend me to watch this movie and I am so grateful as its been so long since I have seen a true Bollywood movie. Let me explain, I have watched many Hindu movies, but most are what we can call independent movies, not true Bollywood. The movie structure and its length is what makes the difference, besides being filmed outside those studios.

Well, this is a 188 minutes long movie, so be very comfortable when watching, as we westerners are not that used to this length. I usually take a break around the middle of the movie to stretch my legs… this reminds me of when I was very young and movies used to have an intermission! One I remember with an intermission is The Ten Commandments.

J.P. Dutta directed and wrote the screenplay for this movie that is an adaptation of the 1905 Urdu novel “Umao Jan Ada” by Mirza Haadi Ruswa. This is a remake of the 1981 classic Bollywood movie, but according to some reviews, is a good remake as it made the story more contemporary and added new dance routines.

Set in the late 19th century the movie tells the story of Ameera a young girl that is kidnapped and sold to a Khanum Sahib the madam of a bordello. She changes Ameera’s name to Umrao and as the girl grows she is taught all the necessary skills to become a courtesan, including dancing. After her first experience Umrao is promoted and acquires a different status among them. Here is where she gets the Jaan status. From then on she is Umrao Jaan.

What comes next is up to you to watch, but it involves the classical structure of happiness and then despair and sorrow. This story has no happy ending, but then, neither has a happy beginning.

Aishwarya Rai, “the most beautiful woman in the world” is Umrao Jaan. In other movies and because she is so beautiful, she is treated more like an object of beauty; but, in this film she really shows her acting skills and she is great, wonderful performance… not in a western style, but in an eastern style. But still, she has many scenes, especially when dancing, where she shows why she is called the most beautiful woman in the world. Outstanding beauty!

Western viewers may recognize Shabana Azmi that plays Khanum Sahib, as she also played Rhada in Deepa Mehta Fire (this is not a Bollywood movie) and in Umrao Jaan gives an excellent perfomace as the down-to-business madam. Also from Fire you will find here Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Rhada’s husband) that in Umrao Jaan plays Maulvi Sahab, Umrao’s teacher and “adopted” father.

As most contemporary Bollywood movies with similar tales, this movie has gorgeous cinematography and exquisitely choreographed dances; and not that many songs that just pop-up in the middle of a scene. Costumes are just marvelous and full of color, I noticed that Aishwarya Rai wore beautiful costumes that matched her incredible eyes and then all around her was lighted with the same light color… the effect was magnificent.

I consider myself a novice in Bollywood movies and I am still learning to fully appreciate them. But, with movies like this one, is going to be an easy learning curve and I am looking forward to watch Guru, with a more contemporary story as is the biopic of the biggest tycoon in Indian history, directed by Mani Ratnam and starring Aishwayra Rai (of course!) and Abhishek Bachchan who also has the lead male role in Umrao Jaan.

If you never have seen a Bollywood movie, Umrao Jaan may be a good movie to start your Bollywood learning as is really easy to watch. But be prepared, Bollywood movies are quite different from western movies. One outstanding difference is the absence of sexual content. Even if this is a story about a courtesan, you will not see one kiss, much less anything else and this still amazes me! In all Bollywood movies I have seen, there has never been any bare body contact; they have these amazing love scenes that somehow become very erotic as they leave everything to your imagination.


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