I finally watched it! And it was sad, as expected, but also mesmerizing in a way I didn’t anticipate. Such a careful world that is created.
This is one of those movies where so much has already been written about it, there isn’t really anything new to add. Rekha’s dedication to the character and disappearance within it. Asha Bhosle’s decision to drop her voice in order to have a distinctly different sound for the songs. The director who dedicated years of his life to the creation of the film. The release in the midst of Amitabh’s Coolie accident aftermath which overshadowed the film. And then the years since as it has become the legendary film, the first thought that comes to mind for Tawaif movies, for Rekha, for poetry, for the great woman lead films of Hindi cinema. No one involved has done anything like it before or since, and somehow that makes it all the more beloved, that this was the one epic great film from Musaffer Ali, the one epic serious classical performance from Rekha. It is Umrao Jaan, it is unique.
I was just talking about how Indian film narrative tends to follow one lead character through most of their life, rather than simply showing a small moment of time. This film is a classic example of that. Umrao Jaan is in the title and it is her story. The other characters wander in and out of her life and the film, disappearing and re-appearing, but the audience remains firmly in her perspective. Perhaps that is why it is so powerful? We are locked in the emptiness and claustrophobia of her life, no more able to escape and understand the greater world than she is?
There are several times in the film when Rekha is missing pivotal pieces of information of one kind of another, and the audience is shocked along with her when she learns the truth. That’s unusual in a film, for there to be so many times when our protagonist is mistaken (not through foolishness but through lack of information) and for the audience to be tricked along with her. Hitchcock has a famous line about how if there is a bomb set to go off and no one in the scene knows it, that’s a surprise, but if there is a bomb and the audience knows it but the characters don’t, that’s suspense. In this film, the audience never knows about the bomb any more than our character. Nothing is real, everything is illusion, everything is seen as though in a warped mirror, not reality.
The men in her life are most often the mystery. Men in this film control women, pleasing them and serving them and fearing them are how women live. But they can never really know them, or trust them. The men go out into a mysterious male world and do male things that the women are cut away from. Even the ones our heroine thinks she knows best, thinks she can understand and trust, they have secrets from her. The 3 lead actors are all phenomenal, Farookh Sheiqh and Naseeruddin Shah and Raj Babbar. They all manage to present one face to Rekha, which seems true and honest and we the audience trust it as much as she does, and then a second face elsewhere in the world.
Of course Rekha herself is the biggest mystery. In her role as courtesan she perfects the idea of a woman so trained to play with the emotions of others that she has lost the ability to honestly reveal her own feelings. There are only a few moments in the film when her mask fully breaks, when strong emotion causes her face to fall into unlovely lines and her body into a graceless pose. But she quickly corrects herself each time, puts back her armor of grace and mystery to hold others out.
That is why her performances are such highlights of the film. For once she can be openly performing, it is far easier to dance and sing for men than to have a conversation with them and withhold your true thoughts. This is not selling herself, this is selling her art and keeping her self hidden away. Which brings me to the ending. The moment she looks at herself in the mirror and knows that self is now well and truly gone and only the reflection remains.
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This film doesn’t have a “plot” exactly, it is merely the story of the things that happened to a woman in her lifetime. As a young girl, perhaps 11 or 12, Rekha is kidnapped by men who have a grudge against her father. They take her, along with a girl kidnapped from a fair, to be sold. The other girl is sold to the palace as a serving girl, Rekha is sold to a brothel. Rekha spends her childhood fostered by the old former prostitute/maid of the brothel and raised like a sister with the daughter of the Madame Shaukat Kaifi (Shabana Azmi’s mother in real life). And befriended by the young man of the household Naseeruddin Shah who acts as a procurer and assistant as needed. As a young woman, she is beautiful and graceful and also intelligent enough to want to write her own poems instead of just learning the poems of others for her performances. At her debut performance she is overheard by Farookh Sheiqh, local nobleman who usually avoids the brothels. He is struck by her poetry and comes to hear her again. Eventually (and the film handles this very delicately) he purchases her virginity. Or rather, his father purchases it as a gift for him possibly without his knowledge.
Farookh and Rekha are now in love but of course it can’t last. Farookh gets into a fight with another patron over Rekha and is forbidden from attending the brothel. Shaukat has arranges a new patron for her, Raj Babbar, a wealthy farmer from the country who throws away vast sums at the brothel. Rekha is finally won over by Raj’s kindness and plans to run away from the brothel with him. Only he arrives at their meeting place chased by the king’s men and Rekha learns he was not a farmer, but a bandit. She is now on her own with no protector. Rekha sets up her own household and begins working as a performer only. She meets Farookh again, now married to the other kidnapped girl in a shocking coincidence. Her foster mother comes to see her and claims that Shaukat is ill with missing her, she must return just once to see her. But it was a trick, they needed her back in the brothel so they could make money from her. And to keep her there, they will have Naseeruddin Shah lie that he married her and she is his wife. Rekha gets a chance to break free of the brothel again when the 1857 revolution causes them to flee. They rest for the night at a village, the village where Rekha was born. She performs for the villagers and her mother recognizes her. The two of them have a rapturous reunion only for her younger brother to appear and throw her out of the house, telling her he would rather she were dead than so shameful. Rekha returns to the deserted brothel and looks at herself in the mirror.
This film is extremely delicate in how it handles the sexual part of a Tawaif’s job. A Tawaif is not simply a sex worker, she is an artist and a performer. To watch her perform live is a privilege available only to a few. And her sexual favors are available only to one single patron at a time. It is never explicitly spoken, but the “big party” that they are preparing for when the film moves from the childhood section to adulthood is Rekha’s coming out party. She will perform for some very wealthy promising patrons of the city and then Shaukat will handle the negotiations and select one of them to purchase her virginity. And Rekha is not necessarily upset about this. She is curious, curious about adulthood and love as she sees it around her. She watches her foster sister with her patron through a curtain and then accepts Naseeruddin’s advances in excitement about this part of life. Maybe it takes a film about a Tawaif to be open about women having sexual desire just as men do.
Shaukat tries to sell Rekha to Farookh’s father, an older man who previously was the patron of Rekha’s friend/Shaukat’s daughter. He sis kind and understanding and experienced, as well as extremely wealthy. It seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship, he likes young women and has money to spend, and he is also an excellent choice for a first patron for a young girl, willing to move on when she is ready to be done with him but kind and experienced while they are together. Rekha’s first patron ends up being Farookh instead, and the characters try to pretend it is romantic destiny, but truly it is like any other patron. He heard her at her “coming out” party, and then heard of her through her pimp Naseeruddin who increased his excitement, arranged payment, arranged their first meeting. And Rekha was practiced at that meeting, shy and loving at the same time, with a little moment when her face broke at the mention of her home village before controlling herself again. And then they entered a mutually enjoyed sexual relationship.
All of Rekha’s relationships shown in the film are voluntary and mutual. But in a larger sense, none of them can be mutual and voluntary. Farookh and she may be in love, but she is still a woman trained in how to please a man, how to be always obedient and make him happy above everything. And he is the only man she sees, she was set up to fall in love with him by the people around her, primed that he is poetic and romantic, locked in a room with him alone to talk as much as they wish, and so on and so forth. And it is the same with Raj. She resists him, but after being alone with him, having those around her sing his praises, she gets used to him and comes to care for him.
Yes, it is like a traditional Indian arranged marriage. But at the same time, not quite. A wife has status, protection. Not a lot of protection, but some. She can interact with other respectable women and men, she can go to the authorities with complaints, and there is a level of kindness and consideration that is expected by society from a husband to a wife. A wife and husband may be primed to fall in love, may be given all the time to fall in love, but when that first flush of love fades they still have something to tie them together, the everyday non-poetic concerns of life. A courtesan and her patron never have that, they are always locked in the superficial beauty of love and none of the reality. Rekha cannot reveal her reality, cannot break face, with Farookh no matter how much she loves him.
The one man she is able to see and treat honestly is Naseeruddin. He knows her for the food she cooks in the kitchen, the dice games she wins in the bedrooms, the “real” her. Not the beautiful delicate Umrao Jaan that outsiders, even those she is closest to, always see. But it’s not just that, she is able to see him honestly as well. She does not approach him primed by others, taught to be loving and understanding, she approaches him with clear eyes. She sees him as a coward, a friend, a flawed person. And she is still betrayed when he agrees to the lie of the false marriage.
Another thing this film handles delicately is the way a courtesan is bother powerful and powerless. Over the course of the film, Rekha’s fame grows as a poet and a performer. She is far more than a beautiful woman or a sex object. But there is no way for her to turn those skills into anything without also following into the trap of her beauty and sex appeal. She cannot make a living selling books of poetry or giving classical dance performances, there is no space for that in this society. The only way to use her fame and talent is in the way that takes away all the power of her fame and talent. She must reject herself as a person and consider herself only an object through which her art can shine.
That’s why her reunion with her friend from the early days of kidnapping is so poignant, this is the last person who saw her as a person, the last person she saw as an equal. And then even that is tainted by the presence of Farookh, who drives Rekha back into her fakeness and life of lies.
In that same scene Rekha describes her life as “hell”, which is odd but somehow we understand it. It is at the end of the film, the statement would not have made sense earlier. We never see Rekha physically abused, and she thrives while performing and using other skills she would only learn as a courtesan. She lives in luxury and beauty and can pursue her passions, no one hurts her, no one forces her, why is her life “hell”? Well, Rekha herself would have had the same question at the start. She was sad when she was kidnapped but by the time she was ready to make her debut, she was excited and eager. But then the years wore her down. She found love, but only a half kind of love. She wanted to leave the brothel and for the first time was forbidden and realized she was trapped. She tried to escape only to discover a man she trusted had deceived her. She finally started an independent life but it was a lonely life, no real friends.That is the insidious pain of the courtesan, it’s not the sex itself, or all the things you are meant to be “shamed” of, it is the inner psychological pain of never being able to be true to others, never knowing if they are true to you, and never even knowing if you are true to yourself.
It’s being homeless. Home isn’t a place, it is other people. For a courtesan, no person can be relied on, no person can be trusted not to sell you or betray you. Rekha spends the film moving from person to person and losing each of them. Her family at home, her first friend in the kidnapping, and then Farookh who has to leave her, Raj Babbar, and finally even her foster family at the brothel who reveal a willingness to betray her for their own self-interest. The film ends by showing even that original family, the one she thought she could rely on, is no longer truly hers. They have erased her, made her dead in their minds, she has no one and nothing but herself. Her only “home” is the reflection in the mirror.