Umrao Jaan Courtesans

I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

Laaga Chunari Mein Daag directed by Pradeep Sarkar belongs to my shopping cart of one million original stories because Rohan (Abhishek Bachchan) asks Vibhavari (Rani Mukherjee) to marry him although he knows that she is a sex worker. Now that is highly unlikely in real life. Most men prefer to have as many frequent flyer miles as possible, but the woman they marry must be a virgin.

I’m interested in the centuries’ old character of the courtesan. The status of women might have improved in the 21st century but society still has two women, the one you elevate to wife and mother, and the one you buy for a few hours and discard like Chandramurkhi in the film Devdas.

The first scene of J.P. Dutta’s film project Umrao Jaan, indicates that the film is an adaptation of Umrao Jaan Ada, the book by Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa. I found out later that there was another film version of the book, directed by Muzaffar Ali, where Rekha played Umrao Jaan. The differences between the two versions are like oceans and deserts.

Umrao Jaan is the sad story of what used to happen in the olden days when girls were stolen from fairs and other public places and sold to brothels. Ameeran was stolen from her home in Faizabad by a man who had a grudge against her father. He sold her to a house of pleasure in Lucknow run by Khanub Sahib, who changed her name from Ameeran to Umrao. She got the ‘Jaan’ when she became Nawaab Sultan’s lover.

I have not read the book, but it seems to me that Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan was true to it compared to J.P. Dutta’s version. Umrao Jaan never accepted her destiny of being a courtesan in Ali’s version. That is why she ran away with that Nawab Faiz Ali, who turned out to be a dacoit.

J.P. Dutta decided to make his a love film, where Umrao Jaan (Aishwarya Rai) used the daicot (Sunil Chetty) to go and find Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). I suppose in her love sick mind, it never occurred to her that he was not going to like the fact that another man was her means of transport to him.

What I liked about Ali’s version is that, Khanub Sahib, the brothel owner, got a taste of her own medicine because daicots kidnapped her daughter Bismillah. Her mother’s business flourished on the pain of mothers whose daughters were abducted and sold as dancing girls. Now she knew Ameraan’s mother’s pain.

Umrao Jaan also had a double dose of pain in Ali’s version when Rekha’s character was invited to sing at a little boy’s birthday party. It turned out that the father was her Nawab Sultan and the mother was the girl she was kidnapped with. Umrao Jaan could not stop thinking what it would have been like, if the roles had been reversed.

I screened J.P Dutta’s Umrao Jaan after reading Vikram’s Seth’s, A Suitable Boy. I was moved by the character Saeeda Bai Firozabadi and her daughter Tasneem. Maan stabbed his best friend Firoz, at Saeeda Bai’s pleasure place.

A Suitable Boy made me understand Sunil Chetty’s character in J.P. Dutta’s version and his distorted wisdom that houses of pleasure become more popular when some shots are fired. Then there’s the issue of the father. Nawab Sultan’s father was attracted to Umrao Jaan, before his son approached her in Ali’s Umrao Jaan.

It is the other way round in J.P. Dutta’s. Nawaab Sultan loved her first, but I think there was some lust thing going on, when Nawaab’s father pounced upon them and demanded to speak to his son alone. That one glance at the departing Umrao Jaan gave me the impression that the older Nawaab Sultan realised that she was an attractive woman.

Both directors had scenes where Umrao is schooled in dance and other social graces. She has the best clothes and jewellery for a very good reason. It is an investment for Khanub Sahib. Umrao’s grooming made me shift the gear lever to reverse to the first scene, where Ameraan and her family attend Pande-ji’s daughter’s wedding.

The bride couldn’t have been twelve and she was crying for a good reason. She didn’t know what awaited her at her in-laws. My language isiZulu has a saying about umshado (marriage). It is a place where the mother-in-law is not your mother (kwamfaz’ongemama). Neighbours and family sang a song when Pandeji’s daughter left home.

“Whatever you have done now.
Oh! God don’t do it again
Don’t bring me back as a daughter
In my next birth.”

Ironically, the Ameraan in J.P. Dutta’s version said she was never going to leave her parents to get married. She is already engaged in Ali’s version. The two films put the viewer in a dilemma. Which girl is better off?

Pande-ji’s daughter who is married off at around twelve years or Umrao Jaan who has servants, jewellery, fine silks, a beautiful house where she receives clients, dancing skills that attracted men from Lucknow and beyond and time to write her poetry?

I suppose Pande-ji’s daughter is better off because she is accepted by society, whether she is happy at her in-laws or not. Umrao Jaan on the other hand is beautiful but her life is in danger because she is a sex worker therefore a thing, not a human being.

A good example is when Ameeran’s brother kicked her out, when she went back to Faizabad after the British invasion. Umrao Jaan, be it Ali’s or J.P Dutta’s adaptation is based on a work of fiction. Their films, like all films are also fiction, but they raise certain issues which are either historical or contemporary.

Umrao Jaan therefore is therefore, not about one woman in ancient Lucknow. It is about global sisterhood in the business where women, for a multitude of reasons, sell the pay per view commodity called sex.

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.
http://www.dorrancebookstore.com

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