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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Umrao Jaan Ada – The Musical: A Theatrical ‘Aadab’ To The Classic Tale

Umrao Jaan Ada, the classic Bollywood movie and tale comes to life in a theatre musical for the first time ever at the Sadlers Wells, London.

Based on the 1905 novel (of the same name) by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, it is a journey of a courtesan, a story of love and struggle – against society’s norms.

The epic story of a courtesan has been written in the pages of our Indian history and even canvassed on the silver screen twice.

Legendary Indian Actress Rekha played Umrao Jaan way back in 1981 in a film with the same name helmed by Muzaffar Ali moreover.

In 2006, director J.P. Dutta made another film on Umrao Jaan’s life with 1994 Miss World and beautiful actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan where she played the titular role.

Comparatively, to the film adaptations, this theatrical adaptation is more succinct and wastes no time with backstories.

We are introduced to a ‘Fakir’ who recites the entire narrative – creating folklore feel to Umrao’s story.

Director Rajeev Goswami avoids getting into the grit and grim aspects of the story and instead, aims to create a visually appealing narration.

For the next couple of hours, we don’t see Umrao’s combatting violence and sexual abuse, we instead observe her helplessly fight for an impossible love… Through Qawwali and Ghazal numbers.

Comparatively to other ‘UK-Indian’ theatre productions, the absence of a ‘set’ is fulfilled through interchanging digital backgrounds, (especially that of Lucknow palaces and balcony) as well the Nawaabi props.

This colourful background is enriched by the spellbinding and graceful Kathak dances, which are incredibly soothing to watch.

It’s admirable how the dancers are like instrumental characters, following every aspect of Umrao’s life.

Since the entire play is in Urdu, the actors hold a strong command on the language and its pronunciations.

Speaking of Urdu, the play is packed with Shayari.

In fact, some lines are so brilliant that they will compel you to scream “wah”. The writing is commendable.

Music maestros Salim-Sulaiman provide yet another amazing background score.

As such, their original track ‘Hum Rahein Ya Naa Rahein’ also blends well into the overall music style.

The enchanting score also uplifts the atmosphere, emphasising the drama. Plus, their recreations of Khhayam’s original tracks are also a perfect ode.

As for the cast, they collectively deliver a good performance. But here are my picks.

Pratibha Singh Baghel as the titular character is delightful in the role.

Given the presence of obvious examples, she doesn’t try to emulate Rekha ji or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Her theatrical adaptation is beautiful.

Sushant as Gauhar Malik, the jealous and obsessive lover is terrific.

He plays the antagonist with such eases where the villainy is seamlessly reflected through his body language and dialogue delivery.

The parallel ‘antagonist’ is played by Kanika Maheshwari who adds some light-humour to a dark character like Khanum Jaan – the brothel Madame.

It’s been a while since we saw her, so it was nice to see her perform after a brief gap.

Harish Moyal tries his best as the Nawaab. Besides his character reciting Shayari and a few dialogues, his character does not get much scope.

When it comes to fighting for his love, we don’t feel his anger or strong emotions for his beloved. Which is perhaps why this also impacts his chemistry with Pratibha.

Whilst we immediately are shown Umrao Jaan in her prime days as a courtesan, the first-half generally takes time to get going which is why it lacks oomph.

Due to this delay, the dramatic (and interesting) part in the second-half gets rushed.

Having said that, presenting a convoluted story like this on stage is a challenging task.

Whilst it may not be as appealing to many youngsters (ie. those born in the 90s and after), the production will certainly serve as a nostalgic treat to many.

Umrao Jaan Ada plays at the Sadler’s Wells, London, until 26 January.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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