Umrao Jaan Ada's tale of courtesans and toxic men makes an unempowering musical

Even by the standards of Bollywood sagas, Umrao Jaan is complex and melodramatic. It is based on what is considered the first Urdu novel, Umrao Jaan Ada (1899) by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, which has spawned two Bollywood films, featuring two of the biggest female leads of the time – a 1981 version starring Rekha and a 2006 movie with Aishwarya Rai – as well as two independent movies. Now this stage version arrives in London, after runs in Mumbai and Delhi.

The plot concerns a girl, Amiran, who is kidnapped from Lucknow in 1840 by a man who was sent to jail after her father testified against him. She is then sold to a brothel, where she becomes a courtesan and takes on the name Umrao Jaan, eventually beginning a relationship with the high status Nawab Sultan. Then things get confusing: Nawab is disowned by his disapproving father and leaves her, Umrao strikes up another relationship with a different man and when she meets Nawab again he disowns her for being promiscuous. Umrao is then raped by a childhood friend, has to flee Lucknow after the British attack the city, finds her way home and is disowned yet again by her long-lost parents because of her years as a courtesan. The movies end with our heroine penniless and alone, musing on her misfortune. Their runtimes are well over the two-hour mark.

Read the review in the Guardian.

[This piece was published on 23/01/20]