My Life My Art: Muzaffar Ali reflects on the iconic Umrao Jaan

My Life My Art: Muzaffar Ali reflects on the iconic Umrao Jaan

Well-known Indian filmmaker Muzaffar Ali recently tuned in to share reflections from his iconic box-office hit 'Umrao Jaan', an Indian film classic from the year 1981 brought to life on screen by the evergreen Bollywood actor Rekha in the lead role.

Set in 19th century Lucknow, 'Umrao Jaan' tells the story of a courtesan, her trials and tribulations amid her rise to fame and some ensuing tragedy. The film is hailed for Ali's skill of bringing together literature, music, costumes as well cinematic beauty, essayed deftly on screen by Rekha.

Inspiration for a classic

In a virtual interaction organised by Baithak UK in association with the Nehru Centre in London recently, Ali reminisced about how it was after reading the 1905 Urdu novel 'Umrao Jaan Ada' that the gem of its cinematic avatar was sown.

Sharing his fascination with the story, he said: “I recorded the whole novel and would listen to it every day on my way to the office. Whenever I listened to it, I was reminded of some season of the past - the pain and joy of the past.

“It started to create visual images for me, and slowly we got into the script, the lyrics, and the music. And the finally choosing a woman to be Umrao Jaan”.

The filmmaker, social activist and designer was determined to find an actor with the versatility to be able to embody and encapsulate the anguish and pain of Umrao Jaan to its very core. The choice of Rekha came about as a result of her captivating eyes.

“I wanted to have somebody who could tell the story through her eyes and when I saw a picture of Rekha in a magazine, her eyes were speaking. She had a very sensual voice, which could really underline that pain. These few things made that decision very easy,” he explains.

Aesthetics and culture

The rare interaction with Ali was steered by Sangeeta Datta, Founder of Baithak UK, who meticulously drew out the memories of a film nearly 40 years old from Ali and his architect and designer wife Meera Ali as part of a “My Life My Art” interaction to bring audiences in contact with artists.

Datta said: “The speakers left the audience inspired and took us back to that magical iconic film 'Umrao Jaan'. It was very special to hear from Muzaffar sahib about his growing up years in Kotwara, about the confluence of aesthetics in Lucknow culture, the deep impact of painting, poetry, and music and how human effort is a 'gift' for society, whether it is food, craft, textile, and poetry.

“Meera Ali spoke so impressively about her dedicated work on craft revival and the creation of the fashion brand House of Kotwara. They both spoke of the artist and social responsibility and how in present times this is so important.”?

Champion of Indian art

The Facebook Live event was joined by Kathak dancer Shivani, who began learning her craft from the age of seven and has been performing the Indian classical dance form in the UK and overseas for years. She went on to present her own interpretations to some of 'Umrao Jaan's' iconic musical hits, such as the famous song 'In Aankhon Ki Masti Ke'.

Minister (Culture) at the High Commission of India in the UK and Director of the Nehru Centre, Amish Tripathi, said: “Muzaffar Ali ji has been a champion of Indian art and heritage, and a symbol of the best of Indian cinema.

“It was an honour for us at the Nehru Centre to host Muzaffar Ali and his wife Meera ji, in association with Sangeeta Datta's Baithak UK Foundation. It was a matter of personal pleasure for me as well, since 'Umrao Jaan' is one of my favourite movies of all time!”

by Preeti Bali

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