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Umrao Jaan unplugged


J.P. Dutta wants the audience to stop comparing Aishwarya Rai with Rekha and instead soak in the essence of Lucknow and the Avadhi culture.

THE COURTESAN SPEAKS Aishwarya Rai relives the part of Umrao Jaan.

The past week has been, to state the obvious, hectic for J.P. Dutta. "Producing and directing a film can be tiring," he laughs. With all eyes on his latest offering, Umrao Jaan, Dutta is fielding brickbats from unexpected quarters. Some people in Lucknow are reportedly unhappy with Dutta's labour of love. "In trying to pull me down, they've been claiming that I haven't shot the film in Lucknow at all. The truth is we shot for 62 days in Lucknow. How can I not shoot there when I make a film based on Ruswa's book Umra-O-Jaan-E-Ada?" asks Dutta. He continues, "The film is set in a time when Lucknow was the seat of education and the Avadh culture stole the limelight off Delhi. To bring out the fervour of the period, I consulted historians and had people like poet Anwar Nadeem and a 70-year-old woman who previously worked in the kothas on our sets. They've given us invaluable inputs. Maybe others are offended that they haven't been consulted."

No comparisons please

Throughout the making, Dutta admits he has been irked by comparisons with Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan starring Rekha. "What I've done is an adaptation of Rizwi's book and not a remake of Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan. Adapting a book is an art. My film looks at the life of Amiran as an individual; I even thought of naming the film Amiran. But the name Umrao Jaan has a better reach and I didn't want to tamper with the book's title. My interpretation of the book is different from that of Muzaffar Ali's and there are changes in the script as well."

Getting the cast together wasn't an ordeal. "Aishwarya Rai was the obvious choice for me and Javed Akhtar. When I first met her, the songs had been recorded. I played the song Main Naa Mil Sakun Tumse. Aishwarya was moved and wept profusely. I had found my Amiran. I can't think of any other actress who can have a smile on her face and a tear in her eyes." As for Abhishek, Dutta recalls a compliment from a member of the censor board. "After watching the film, the lady told me that Abhishek has delivered an award winning performance." Dutta adds, "Abhishek might joke saying he had to just sit and gaze at Aishwarya's dances, but that's because he is modest like his father."

J.P. Dutta

Among the artistes, Shabana Azmi was the icing on the cake. Incidentally, Shabana's mother played Umrao Jaan's mother in Muzaffar Ali's movie. "Shabana and I worked in theatre many years ago. It was a great reunion. She and her mother shopped for the outfits in Lucknow. Shabana is brilliant and deserves the Mahatma Gandhi peace prize."

Dutta's recent films have all been based on war, but this epic was no new idea. Even before he made Refugee, he planned to film Aakhri Mughal as the launch vehicle of Abhishek Bachchan. "That's somewhere in the back of our minds. Abhishek and I might revive the plan. I'd like to read William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal too," says Dutta. Umrao Jaan too is a cherished dream. His father O.P. Dutta penned the script two decades ago but shelved plans of making the film since Muzaffar Ali's film was being made. "I've used my father's script, but not without making him write and rewrite some portions," says Dutta, a taskmaster on the sets.

He hates strictly going by the storyboard and changes dialogues on the sets. "I am instinctive. Actors don't know what to expect from me. When Shammi Kapoor acted in my film Patwada, he said I reminded him of a then famous cricketer whose shots can never be predicted."

Will Umrao Jaan succeed? "It should, for the sake of Ash, Abhishek, Shabana, Javed and my team. Umrao Jaan evokes a mystical feeling. People ask me if Umrao Jaan is still alive and if she does live in Lucknow. I don't know if I should tell them she's a work of fiction. A character that evokes curiosity will be keenly watched."

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