This film is based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Mohammad Hadi ‘Ruswa’, published in 1899, which presents the story of Umrao Jaan, a courtesan of Lucknow and Kanpur, as supposedly true. It is set at the last moment of Lucknow’s glory: the 1857 uprisings occur in the novel when Umrao Jaan is at the height of her power. The novel’s popularity has continued to the present, although the story of Umrao Jaan is probably better known now from this film version, which has been adapted considerably to fit the requirements of the Hindi film. These include a focus on Umrao’s romance and her transformation into a beautiful woman, and the film creates nostalgia for a lost world, adding the visual pleasures of cinema.
The child Ameeran (Umme Farwa) lives in Faizabad with her parents (Muzaffar Ali plays her father) and her baby brother (Shaad Ali Sahgal, Muzaffar Ali’s son, who directed Saathiya  and Bunty our Babli ). Her father’s enemy Dilawar Khan abducts her from her own engagement ceremony and she, along with another girl, Ram Dei, is sold in Lucknow. The chaudhuriyan (madam) (Shaukat Kaifi) of her kotha (brothel) renames her Umrao and she is trained in dancing, singing and poetry. She and her friend grow up (into Rekha and Prema Narayan). Gauhar Mirza (Naseeruddin Shah), the son of one of the tawaifs, pursues her but, once she begins to perform, a nawab, Sultan Sahib (Farouque Shaikh), falls in love with her and she with him. When the nawab and Umrao realise that they cannot marry, she runs away with Faiz Ali (Raj Babbar), a bandit. When he is killed, she sets up her own kotha in Kanpur where she meets Ram Dei, who has married a nawab and laments her own fate. Mirza comes to take her back to Lucknow, but she escapes during the 1857 uprisings. She finds herself in Faizabad, where she continues with her career.
The film showcases the talents of Rekha, one of the great divas of Hindi cinema. Although she was already an icon, this is her greatest performance and the film in which she looks the most beautiful. The film is obsessed with the exquisite aesthetics of a lost Islamicate culture. Muzaffar Ali, himself a member of one of the princely families of Lucknow, and latterly a clothes designer and music event organiser, has paid attention to every detail of these aspects to produce a visual gem. It is said that the extras are also members of princely families, who were asked to come dressed in their finest clothes and to lend items from their palaces. Since much of the film was shot on sets in Bombay, it seems more likely that the props were brought from markets such as Chor Bazaar.
The film has wonderful songs, especially Umrao’s four ghazals (a popular genre of Urdu poetry), with music by Khayyam, lyrics by Shahryar and sung by Asha Bhosle. These are ‘Justuju jiski thi’, ‘Yeh kya jagah hai doston’,’ In aankhon ki masti’ and the most popular of all, ‘Dil cheez kya hai?’. Although not classical music, they produce a similar effect and, as such, they are much loved even today.
The film is currently being remade, presumably only as a commercial venture, as any attempt to improve on it would be very risky indeed.
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1981, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Muzafar Ali, Director – Muzafar Ali, Music Director – Khaiyyam, Cast – Farooque Shaikh, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Prema Narayan, Shaukat Kaifi, Dina Pathak, Khan Ghilzai, Akbar Rashid, Gajanan Jagirdar, Rita Rani Kaul, Shaheen Sultan, Umme Farwa, Seema Sathyu