OPINION

Umrao Jaan - A Story of The Indian Girl Child

August 08, 2008
Madhu Chandra

Umrao Jaan is a Bollywood film produced by Muzaffar Ali in 1981, which was remade by J. P. Dutta in 2006. It is based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada written in 1905 by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, based on the life of the famous Lucknow courtesan.

It is a story of an Indian girl child who laments her agony of life, composed in the form of poetry and music, with soul-gripping lyrics.

Agale Janam Mohe, Betiya na kijo
“In my next birth, Oh God, don’t bring me as a girl child!”

It is the song of a woman, whose childhood was looted when she was kidnapped by her neighbor Dilwar Khan for revenge against her father for testifying in a criminal case which led him to be imprisoned for several years. She was sold to a brothel at Lucknow at the age of eight, and was later adopted by a couple to bring her up with the same parental care, education, dance, poetry and music, only to charm the wealthy as a famous courtesan of Lucknow.

Ameeran, her parental name was changed to Umrao Jaan (love). The love she earned from wealthy men, who came to the courtesan, also brought her the label “Bazaar Aurat, a prostitute”

In the remake, former Miss Universe and Bollywood Super Star, Aishwariya Rai acted as Umrao Jaan along with Abhishek Bachchan as Nawab Sultan and Sunil Shetty as Faiz Ali.

At the age of 20, when she was fully grown and matured, Umrao got the title “Jaan” after performing a charming courtesan dance and singing at Lucknow, where Umrao caught the eye of wealthy princes, kings, and Nawabs.

Nawab Sultan was one among many such wealthy men, whose love was stolen by the charms of Umrao at first meeting itself. Soon, Umrao got into the net of Sultan, with true passionate romance, not knowing her love for Sultan would be rejected soon. Sultan’s father did not want to see his family defamed by his son marrying a “Bazaar Aurat” and disowned him.

When Sultan didn’t have a penny after his father disowned him he went to live with his uncle at Grahi.

In the absence of Sultan, Umrao was noticed by wealthy Faiz Ali, who wanted her at any cost. Faiz Ali turned to be a dacoit and got arrested during a journey to Grahi with Umrao. Sultan heard the news about Faiz Ali and Umrao’s coming to Grahi, and questioned Umrao about the suspicious relationship with Faiz Ali.

Brokenhearted, Umrao, finally decided to return back to her cage of courtesan at Lucknow, where on her arrival, she was raped by her childhood friend in the brothel, and yet, later, she forgave him unconditionally.

Soon, the British attacked the city and forced her to leave Lucknow. She decided to go to her forgotten childhood home at Faizabad. She found her father dead and her mother and brother refused to accept her because of her profession.

Umrao, shunned by her family, her lover and society, leaves to return to Lucknow, but fate plays another joke and on her way out of the city, she encounters the man who kidnapped and sold her to the brothel in the first place. Poor, wretched, homeless and injured, the man begs for pity, not recognizing that she is Ameeran, and she essentially forgives him.

Shunned by all and having forgiven those who destroyed her life, she lives the rest of her days in Lucknow with her poetry and ill fate.

Umrao Jaan’s story reflects what a girl child often experiences in Indian society where the issues of crimes, abuse and gender discrimination to the girl child are debated continually.

It is a story that reflects the life of a girl child, whose choice is nothing but slavery throughout life, beginning under the dominion of father at childhood, husband at married life and son at old age.

The story reflects the gender discrimination, female foeticide, and female infanticide in our society. The story reflects the trafficking of children, pushing many into the life like of Umrao Jaan.

After being shunned by her mother and brother, Umrao laments,

Tell me. Have you seen such a farewell?
Nor mother, nor father, nor brother.
No one is there.”
Tears are the ornaments and the palanquin of sorrow.
The locked doors are bidding farewell to me.
Never return here even in your dreams.

Look at my lover, he has broken my heart
After abandoning me midway,
He is setting a new life
As like a child gets new toy,
Plays with it for some days and then forgets
Don’t make me a doll like this, who cannot even cry

In the next birth of mine,
Oh God, don’t birth me as a girl child!
Whatever you have done now,
Oh God, don’t do it again.

Where Umrao Jaan was shunned and forsaken, no one could hear the song that narrates her misery, but it was Mirza Hadi Ruswa, who heard as she cried,

You call me, “the voice of broken heart.”
I am the instrument, which contains all melodies
Who am I, what and am I, for whom am I alive?
I myself do not understand.
Tell me the secret.
Tell me the secret.

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#1
Chandra
August 8, 2008
10:46 AM

Many lower middle class girls of the 80s are now aggressive members of the corporate world today. Their fathers and mothers brought them up as equals. The IT industry, whatever its size has a large proportion of women (many from lower MC families) because their parents worked hard to get them there. Instead of whinning, please understand why some lower middle class families (where the father is X fail and mother is class 3 fail) have managed to send their daughter to good colleges and schools through determination and hardwork.

#2
smallsquirrel
August 8, 2008
12:16 PM

that's nice Chandra. yes, there are success stories. but who speaks for the million who are left behind? there are far too many children still being sold off. when I was in Bangalore there was a HUGE story about a ring busted in Hyderabad where families were selling girls off for as little as 400 rs. and well, even if they aren't sold, depending on caste or location they might be burnt alive for walking on the wrong foot path. and my maid, she was 22 and not in control of her own life even for a millisecond. her mother and older brother controled her every decision. the only sense of power she got was learning english from the people she worked for, and finally learning that she could open a bank account on her own and hide some money away. and while it would have been socially irresponsible for me to teach her to be a wild rebel, I did arm her information even her own mother refused to teach her... about self esteem, life, and her own body. she did not even know she had options when her last employer only fed her one cup of rice per day and forced her to sleep on a landing outside the loo with only one small blanket.

yes, for many women life has improved in India. but sadly, for too many others it remains horribly regressive.

#3
Ritu
URL
August 8, 2008
04:43 PM

It's a nice attempt Madhu, however I fail to see the connection between Umrao Jaan and all the issues you mention about esp female foeticide and infanticide. Yes, the story does tell us about the lack of choices women had in the days of yore. It chronicles the life and times of the courtesans and the muck behind their glamour. Yet, isolating that as a 'woman' thing is incorrect. It is just a poignant story of a woman entrapped by her fate.

Why do we have a myopic vision when it comes to women. It is not only the girl child that is sold off for pittance. The little boys are also victims of abuse. The little children who ply their trade on the streets of any metro. They are equal opportunity preys for sexual predators.

Yes, gender is one criterion through which human beings are singled out for exploitation. But that is just criterion. There are many other criteria that are very much around.

And talking of lack of choices in the era bygone. Do you think the men had choices? Could Nawab Sultan, to take this example, heed his heart and marry the girl of his choice? No. They were as tied to their moorings as women. The modern era has opened out options for both men and women. The family and society control is gradually lessening. Ofcourse, it is still around and we will see examples. But it is on a decline.

#4
Roshan
August 9, 2008
01:52 AM

I have not read the novel nor seen the Rekha starrer. But I saw the J.P Dutta's version and I liked it. I could feel the pain in Umaro Jaan's heart and appreciate her innate strength to push through all the unfortunate incidents in her life. And Aishwarya Rai really did well in this role.

#5
Chandra
August 9, 2008
02:39 AM

SS

As usual you miss the thrust of my argument. Has the author understood why some groups of people with a similar income profile are doing better than the other? If he/she did, one could attempt to replicate the success. There are many people who know how to whine about things not going well. Very few who have solutions.

#6
smallsquirrel
August 9, 2008
10:01 AM

no chandra, as usual you failed to competently present the thrust of your argument in a way that others could understand....

#7
Chaitanya S
August 9, 2008
01:28 PM

Chanda: I feel your statement where parents make sacrifices for their girl is slightly out of context with Umrao Jaan's story. She was kidnapped from the house, not sold. I wonder if those parents who have made sacrifices for their girl child will accept her back if she has been "shamed" in any way. This is applicable to any strata of Indian society.

SS: "depending on caste or location they might be burnt alive for walking on the wrong foot path". & "her last employer only fed her one cup of rice per day and forced her to sleep on a landing outside the loo with only one small blanket". I do not feel this behavior is gender defined. It could even happen to a boy. As Ritu rightly said, even small boys are subject to abuse.

#8
smallsquirrel
August 9, 2008
01:52 PM

chai.. I agree, boy servants and dalit boys are mistreated as well. I do not disagree on bit with those points. boys are also vulnerable to sexual abuse as well, sadly. but families are much more eager to get rid of girl children and get them into situations like my maid was faced with. her brother was not forced to leave the house and live elsewhere as a servant. he was at home, after finishing his education, trying his hand at fish selling and chatting up the ladies.

#9
Kerty
August 9, 2008
10:39 PM

In the era of Umrao Jaan, villages that had lost the patronage and protection of hindu kings, and women who had lost the males of the families in a war found themselves parading their ware in Kothas and meena bazars as far away as Iran and saudi arabia. Victorious army was allowed to keep % of loot (which included women of defeated kingdoms) that were sold off far and wide - and women derived their worth based on their ability to entertain and woo their patrons. Women were reduced to a status of objects, commodity, prostitutes, tramps. Many women during that era chose to die rather face such fate and many parents chose foeticide rather than face the prospects of shame. But now we have a feminist rewrite of that era in Bollywood version of Umaro Jaan.

#10
Chandra
August 10, 2008
12:36 AM

SS

Not 'others', talk about yourself. You seem to be in a very foul mood these days. May be you need to sort yourself first. :-)

#11
smallsquirrel
August 10, 2008
08:04 AM

chandra,

whatever. and no I am not in a foul mood. can you stick to topic and stop making personal comments?

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