Friday, June 24, 2011

Stellar Soundtracks (3): Umrao Jaan

Umrao Jaan (Rekha)
Umrao Jaan is one of my favourite Indian movies. It stars the drop dead gorgeous Rekha and the absolutely wonderful Naseeruddin Shah. It is set in a part of Uttar Pradesh that I grew up in. The story is a poignant human drama set against the larger historical drama of the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence) of 1857, one of the most interesting periods in modern Indian history. And finally, but most definitely not leastly, it has an absolute killer soundtrack, which I am very pleased to post tonight.

Umrao Jaan was released in 1981 to great critical acclaim but lukewarm public response. No doubt its literate script, nafees Urdu and historical setting was beyond the appreciation levels of the average punter. But in the 30 intervening years, Asha Bhosle’s singing and Rekha’s dancing have only grown in stature. Buy any collection of Asha’s amazing career of hits and you’ll find every song she sang in Umrao Jaan. They are still considered the absolute peak of her grace and creativity. Rekha, known more for her racy roles before Umrao danced and acted her way to the 1981 Best Actress Award and then went on to seal her status as a serious artiste.

The soundtrack is the most complete expression of music, lyric, emotion and drama Bollywood has ever produced. The director, Muzzafar Ali, was at pains to recreate mid 19th century society of the tawwaif  (courtesan) with as close to perfect verisimilitude as possible. And so elaborate costumes were sewn, the most evocative havelis (manors) used as sets, elegant refined Urdu was spoken and of course authentic period music played throughout. And to bring all of this to life he employed the best artists and craftsmen. The lyrics were written by the accomplished Urdu poet (and professor at Aligarh Muslim University) Shahyar and the music composed by the equally brilliant Khayyam. Together they created a musical and lyrical atmosphere that leaves the listener weak at the knees with the beauty of it all.  Not just the stunning gems of Dil Cheez Kya Hai  and In Aakhon ki Masti and Justuju Jis ki Thi and Yeh Kya Jagah Hai, Dosto. These masterpieces are supported by classical ragas, folk music and ghazals that paint a comprehensive picture of the musical landscape that was kingdom of Avadh (Lucknow). Alert readers of the Washerman’s Dog will remember that the instrument, the sarangi, rose to its preeminent place in Hindustani music as an accompanist to the courtesans of the 18th and 19th century such as Umrao Jaan. You will hear lots of sarangi on this soundtrack.

I have bought numerous cassettes and CDs of Umrao Jaan over the years but have not until recently had the pleasure of hearing the entire original soundtrack.  The largely unknown tracks by Talat Aziz, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Shahida Khan and Jagjit Kaur when heard in the order they were originally performed make the soundtrack standout even more.  This is just an absolute golden moment in cinema music. Enjoy forever!

The Story

In the year 1840, a girl named Amiran (Seema Sathyu) is kidnapped from her family in Faizabad, Awadh by their neighbour, Dilawar Khan (Satish Shah), and sold to Madam Khanum Jaan (Shaukat Kaifi) who owns a brothel in Lucknow where she trains courtesans (tawaif). Amiran, renamed Umrao Jaan, learns to read, write, dance, sing, and charm wealthy men. She is a cultured woman trained to captivate men of wealth and taste.
A grown-up Umrao Jaan (Rekha) catches the eye of Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh), and the two fall in love. But Nawab must marry to please his family, and Umrao's heart is broken.
She meets a dashing bandit chieftain, Faiz Ali (Raj Babbar), who woos and wins her. She flees with her dacoit, hoping to marry him and leave the world of the courtesan far behind. But her lover is killed by local police and she is left alone, with no choice but to return to her old life.
Soon, the British attack the city of Lucknow and the residents are forced to flee. Umrao's party of refugees stop in a small village near Lucknow. The residents ask the courtesan to sing and dance. Umrao, looking about her, realizes that this is her town, Faizabad, her family, the place from which she was kidnapped. She had been so young when kidnapped that she had forgotten, but now it all returns to her.
She sings the song, "Yeh kya jagah hai doston?" (What kind of place is this, friends?) a veiled reference to her feelings of dismay at being treated like a pariah entertainer by her very own people. After, she meets her mother and younger brother, who had thought that she was dead. Her mother would be happy to welcome her back into the family, but her brother forbids it — she is tainted by her profession and must not return to embarrass them.
At the end of the film, Umrao returns to the now-deserted and looted brothel in Lucknow and finds she is left alone, with nothing but her profession and her poetry.

         Track Listing:
        01 Dil Cheez Kya Hai
02 Justuju Jis Ki Thi
03 Kahe ko Byahi Bides
04 Pratham Dhar Dhyan (Raga Mala)
05 In Aankhon ki Masti
06 Zindagi Jab Bhi
07 Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Dosto
08 Jab Bhi Milti Hai
09 Jhoola Kinne Dala

Listen here


litlgrey said...

Wow, thankee!

ajnabi said...

You are welcome, litlgrey.