Rekha was born to play the role of Tawaif Umrao in this melancholy classic film. The 1981 blockbuster movie, Umrao Jaan was what made Rekha a super star!
Set among the elite Muslim society in mid-nineteenth century northern India, Umrao Jaan (Rekha) portrays a romanticized version of a tawaif, a sort-of courtesan who has something in common with Japan's geishas.
The film opens with Umrao Jaan, a young girl who is sold to a brothel. As an innocent girl, she excels at all three necessities, needed to survive in the conniving world of brothels – Dancing, singing and being beautiful.
The film spans over 30-odd years and the journey of how Umrao becomes the most sought-after and famous tawaif in the region. But in spite of all her accomplishments, Umrao is never happy, and while she can find some measure of escape in crafting her much-admired poetry, she longs to extricate herself from the world of the tawaif. She works her way through a brief series of lovers and rich patrons, hoping each one will be her ticket out of the degrading life in a brothel. Needless to say, freedom is not Umrao's destiny, and after each attempt at escape - literal and figurative - she finds herself right back where she started - Umrao Jaan, the famous courtesan, performing for the benefit and the pleasure of others.
It is Rekha's ineffable Rekha-ness that makes her so perfect for this role – her gait, beauty and impeccable kathak. Umrao Jaan is gorgeous and how she somehow manages to appear tired and worldly, while remaining delicate and fierce.
Rekha carries Umrao's transition from innocence to disillusionment in her body and through her expressions. Umrao never loses her grace, but, as Rekha conveys, she does lose her idealism.
Early in the film, she quotes that circumstances rather than destiny have made her a tawaif; and circumstances can change. Later however, she seems nearly broken, and the sadness just grows in Rekha's eyes, through each iteration of her Sisyphean attempts to redefine her circumstances.
The music of Umrao Jaan is lovely and magical. Most of the songs represent Umrao's own poems as she performs them for her patrons, and they reflect her melancholy dignity throughout the film. Umrao sings both of succumbing completely to love and also of her own particular power.
The songs themselves are gorgeous ghazals sung by Asha Bhosle. Music Director Khayyam won the National award for the Best Music for his songs - Dil cheez kya hai, Justuju Jiski Thi, In ankhon ki masti, and Yeh kya jagah hai doston. These were a part of a performance quite different from the flirtatious exuberance of Asha Bhosle's earlier work on the funkiest soundtracks of the 70s.
Here she delivers the melodies with a placid, emotive sweetness that is wonderful and a perfect match for the mood of the film. As if that weren't enough, we, like Umrao's patrons, are treated to some mesmerizing Kathak by Rekha.
The film is unmatchable with a powerful script and plot portrayed with fierce direction by Muzaffar Ali. Cinematography by Pravin Bhatt covers the gorgeous sets and interiors of the ‘Kotha’ with ease and finness.
Umrao Jaan is a Bollywood classic. It is original, and its magnanimity is incomparable. The 2006 remake of the film was a lot of things, but it surely was not remotely in comparison with Rekha’s Umrao Jaan.