It's a brave director who takes on the task of remaking a classic. Better known for his war epics, JP Dutta switches genres for his rendition of Umrao Jaan, a timeless story of spurned love and abandonment. Starring Indian screen idols of the moment, Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan, the expectations for this film were inordinately high. Unfortunately, lacking innovation and soul, the film fails to live up to the grandeur of its much superior precursor, and its own hype.
Set in 19th century Lucknow, Umrao Jaan tells the story of Ameeran, a child who is abducted and sold into a Lucknow kotha by her father's adversary Dilawar. At the kotha, Ameeran is given a new life and a new identity by Khanum Sahib (Shabana Azmi) as Umrao Jaan. As a young woman Umrao (Aishwarya Rai) wins the hearts of the nawabs of Lucknow, among them Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). Nawab Sultan falls for Umrao as she does for him and when confronted by his disapproving father, chooses Umrao over his wealth and lineage. Disowned by his father and rendered penniless, Nawab is however, unable to meet the price for Umrao Jaan and Umrao is sold against her wishes to the highest bidder, Faiz Ali (Suniel Shetty), a notorious bandit in the guise of a Nawab. Umrao Jaan awaits the return of her lost love, but repeatedly falls victim to her circumstance and the betrayal of others. Condemned and ultimately abandoned by all, she resigns herself to a life without love.
Comparisons with the 80s Rekha starrer were inevitable at the outset and Dutta's Umrao Jaan is burdened by the weight of the original. While only Aishwarya could emulate the grace and poise of Rekha, she doesn't quite capture the intensity of Umrao's abiding melancholy. Abhishek is suitably regal as the amorous Nawab and displays touches of his father's genius in his performance. Shabana Azmi too, is exemplary as Khanum Sahib, masterfully investing her character with guile, artifice and a touch of heart. The soundtrack was perhaps the greatest challenge in the face of the timeless score of the original, however the music too fails to captivate.
"ARDUOUS AT TIMES"
At three hours long, the experience of Umrao Jaan is at times arduous. The incandescent beauty and artistry of Aishwarya does indeed keep the audience watching, though not necessarily emotionally engaged. Ultimately, J. P. Dutta's film is an Ash-fest that adds little to the legacy of Umrao Jaan.