From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.
Week 6: Umrao Jaan
1981, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Muzaffir Ali
Perhaps the most successful commercial art film Bollywood ever made. Think of it as India’s answer to Memoirs of a Geisha coupled with the raw power of Jane Campion’s The Piano. It has it all—exquisite period costumes and sets, nuanced performances from classically trained actors, and a hauntingly beautiful score. Based on the fictional memoir of a 19th century tawayaf (prostitute or public woman) of Lucknow, Umrao Jaan chronicles the life of its title character, the most celebrated courtesan of her day, from her childhood up until the British invasion of Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Rather than simply vilify men for their treatment of women, the movie celebrates the resilience of women who are able to succeed within these patriarchal restrictions. Director Muzaffir Ali’s attention to detail in recreating the heady atmosphere of 19th century Lucknow is so precise you feel like you’re watching documentary footage. But the strength of Umrao Jaan lies in Rekha’s blessedly controlled and intelligent performance in the title role.
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