The nation is thrilled at the news of Sajal Aly playing the fourth Umrao Jaan. Just when the news broke on the internet, FUCHSIA journeyed back in time to catch up on some of the actresses who played the eternally evergreen character of one of the greatest and the first great modern Urdu novels, Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Ruswa (1905).
With several and successive remakes, some efforts made cinematic history while others were mere compromises, but the movies that clicked and the novel were both gems all the same. Ruswa threaded the fictional memoir of a courtesan (tawaif) belonging to Lucknow, depicting a personal account of Umrao’s childhood and adolescence, ending in 1857’s War of Independence. While my favorite was Rekha, let’s take a look at some of the outstanding women who have essayed the lead of Umrao Jaan.
Rekha beautifully played the character of Umrao Jaan in 1981 opposite Farouque Shaikh, whose character, Sultan Sahab (the young nawab) shared the love of poetry, dance, and music. It is a well-known fact that Rekha as the classic Umrao Jaan has been etched in people’s minds, till today, because of the mesmerizing expressions she captured throughout the film, especially with her eyes. The song aur unki aankhon mein ek tevar tha – woh gir ke sambhalne wala tevar fit like a proverbial glove with eyes brimming over with tragic depth, tearful hope, and blissful optimism. The cherry on top was her craft of immaculate dance skills and movement. And time has proven that this casting decision was one of the best in Indian cinema. The musical score for the film scored a 10 on the melody scale and lives on years after. The film also cast the legendary Naseeruddin Shah as Gohar Mirza whose performance added miles to the gripping narrative.
Fun fact: Rekha wore her own jewelry on the set due to budget constraints.
Directed by Hassan Tariq, the first Pakistani Umrao Jaan was played by Rani. Playing the character opposite Shahid, the titular role was charmingly displayed as she fought the patriarchal systems amongst the nawabs and begums of the time. Shahid brought out the best in her with his haunting presence.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (2006)
It is a no-brainer that when Bollywood decided to remake an Umrao Jaan version for the younger populace to resonate with, Aishwarya was the next choice who played the lead for the timeless classic opposite Abishek Bachan. Although Rekha’s performance remained unparalleled, Aishwarya pretty much did a fine job of playing Umrao Jaan. Her adas, her delicate hand movements, and dance skills were spot on to play the character of the courtesan. J. P. Dutta’s version was not just an entertainment fluke but the lead actors also shared real-life chemistry, before they materialized into a power couple. Shabana Azmi’s casting here as Khanum Jaan fit the role like a glove.
Fun Fact: All the jewelry worn on the set of this grand remake was real!
Sajal Aly (soon)
The latest adaptation will now star Sajal Aly. Although the novel utilized creative sensibilities surrounding cinema, this time the novel will fit the narrative of a series in Urdu. While we have little details about the project, it is in development and is said to have a strong female second lead with a potential release at a major streaming platform. Aly has successfully impressed her fans before with roles in Alif, O’Rangreza, and Aangan. Playing the role of traditional girls, with strong but poised and graceful characters, here’s hoping that she will do an equally fine job at playing Umrao Jaan.
Playing the timeless role of Umrao Jaan will be a breakthrough and a creative milestone achieved in Aly’s career. But it will be no easy feat to achieve. Scaled up to the likes of stellar names such as Rekha, Aishwarya, and Rani, this is also a feather in the cap for all Pakistani artists. Comparisons are inevitable post-release since the role has been played several times in diverse eras for different generations. One wouldn’t expect anything short of outstanding in terms of choreography, emotions, expressions, and cinematography. So the audience’s expectations are naturally quite high with Rekha and Rai having previously portrayed the roles with immense perfection and flawless emotive game. What a coincidence that it has been played twice in India, and it will be the second time for the Pakistani industry to fare the character.
Some Questions Surrounding the Latest Umrao Jaan Narrative
The charm of Umrao Jaan has so far played on the primary narrative guiding the story, which is that of dance & music. We look forward to top notch choreography to pull off the mainstay of the movie. The musical score is another department that will attract major interest. Waiting to catch Sajal Aly giving off the same adas that the role carries is something that will pique viewers’ curiosity. Since the project is an Abu Dhabi-based production from Hamid Hussain and Muhammad Yaqoob, we’re curious to know how this one will be packaged and the ensemble cast members reveal that define the story vis-a-vis Nawab Sultan, Gohar Mirza, Khanum Jaan and others. Will there be a spark for the current generation to watch it?
Since 2006, Umrao Jaan will be seen on screen after nearly two decades, and with Pakistani cinema on an entirely different landscape now, with Kamli, TLoMJ, and Joyland earning international recognition, Aly is up against a bar that has never been set this high before, at both ends of the Global South.
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