Umrao Jaan is a 1981 Bollywood film, directed by Muzaffar Ali. It is based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada (1905), written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa based on the famous Lucknow courtesan. The film starred Bollywood actress Rekha and Farooq Shaikh as leads.
In essence Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 classic ‘Umrao Jaan’ can be called the story of a prostitute, or to be more precise, the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold and the soul of a poet. Not getting into the morality of the lead character’s profession, one could say she is simply a little girl lost, confined within the walls of a brothel whose only escape is her heartfelt poetry and the undependable lovers who share her bed.
The longing for love, is a theme which many film deals with and is probably the most cliché foundation to use when dealing with the life of a prostitute. However, in the context of Umrao Jaan’s story, it is the most applicable base to start from.
Rekha as Amiran
Seema Sathyu as Young Amiran
Farooq Shaikh as Nawab Sultan
Naseeruddin Shah as Gohar Mirza
Raj Babbar as Faiz Ali
Gajanan Jagirdar as Maulvi
Shaukat Kaifi as Khanum Jaan
Umme Farwa as Young Amiran
Dina Pathak as Husseini
Prema Narayan as Bismillah
Bharat Bhushan as Khan Saheb
Mukri as Parnan Aziz
Satish Shah as Daroga Dilawar
Directed by Muzaffar Ali
Produced by Muzaffar Ali
Written by Muzaffar Ali,Javed Siddiqui
Release dates 1981
The film is based on the 1899 novel ‘Umrao Jan Ada’, written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa; it has also been called the first novel in the Urdu language. Ruswa claimed that it was based on the true story of a courtesan named Umrao. How much truth there is to that claim, we will probably never know, but if there was a real person named Umrao Jaan and if this story is anything to go by, then she truly must have been a tragic figure.
Umrao Jaan was not born a harlot, as no prostitute ever is, but by a cruel hand that life deals her, she becomes one. Her life started as a young innocent girl named Amiran, who is kidnapped by an enemy of her fathers in Faizabad and then sold to a brothel in Lucknow. In such an unenviable position, she is reborn and schooled into a courtesan. Dancing, singing and generally being submissive to would-be customers are the ways of the trade, but it is poetry that is her passion. This passion initially is kept secret and only revealed to those close to her, but gradually it becomes a trademark and in the end, as it turns out, a means of livelihood for her.
At the heart of this movie is obviously Rekha, who was probably never been more beautiful or more powerful as she is in the title role. Bringing just about the right amount of naiveté, disillusionment and composed defiance, her performance makes this movie click and like the shining sun, has the other characters revolving around her. Her seductive eyes and exquisite features project all the elements needed to bring Umrao Jaan to life. Add to this her acting chops and Urdu dialogue delivery, and you have a class act that is truly timeless. Rekha, apparently had to work hard at her Urdu to make it believable and it shows.