(2006) Umrao Jaan Era

Umrao Jaan takes you back to the elegant kotha culture. It takes an Aishwarya Rai’s elegance to recreate that era.

That’s quite a compliment. I just want to thank my directors for providing me opportunities in such rare genres. It doesn’t oft-come in these times. So I feel good about it. I guess I’m blessed.

Abhishek does his first costume drama.

Yes, but I’ve done another beautiful one earlier, Devdas. I’m equipped to go back to the old-world culture because I’m a girl very rooted to Indian culture. Sari is my most favourite apparel. I’m teased that I belong to some other era. But at the end of the day I am a contemporary woman of the world. It’s cinematic experiences such as Devdas, Umrao Jaan and Guru that give me the privilege of going back to another era.

Please explain.

Being a South Indian, people like Rekhaji and me have worked very hard at brushing up our Hindi. But Urdu, such a beautiful language, is totally alien to me and to most of us in Umrao Jaan, including JP Dutta. We were all tremendously aided by JP saab’s father OP Dutta saab. To have a director like JP Dutta who is perceived as a task master, was a blessing.

He’s known to be a tyrant on the sets.

You think Sanjay Bhansali is any less of a tyrant on the sets? Any director who’s passionate about his work will be perceived as a tyrant. Whatever the decibel at which a committed director instructs his actors, he wants his point made across. It’s the teacher-pupil relationship. I’ve worked with all kinds of directors from Sanjay to JP saab to Adi Chopra to Subhash Ghai. They’re all known to be passionate in their own way. Why, even Karan Johar whom I haven’t worked with, is known to become extremely angry on the sets. And don’t forget Mani Rathnam. My God! He’s my first director (in Iruvar). And now I’ve worked with him again in Guru. Of course, he’s known to lose his cool.

You’re uncomfortable with the higher notes.

You won’t find me screaming in real life or on screen. Of course, I’ve gone through a spectrum of emotions with Sanjay Bhansali. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas had high points of drama. That’s where you mould your talents to every genre.

Did you enjoy doing the Mujra in Umrao Jaan?

To know to dance is one thing. But to get the finer nuances of a Mujra, down to its smothered energy and expressions of restrained poignancy, is very difficult. Vaibhavi Merchant knows Kathak. She brought the classical element into the dances. There was a huge contribution by JP saab too. After three rehearsals he’d suddenly bring in changes. The Mujras required myriad expressions in one sweep. JP had a three-camera set up. He operated one of them. So I had to give different expressions into different cameras. By far this was the most challenging film for its dancing.

And Abhishek?

He was the veteran of the unit, having worked with JP twice before.

Abhishek thinks ‘Umrao’ is your best performance.

That’s very generous of him. Me? I can’t assess myself. There’re films and roles that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. It shows in my work. Umrao Jaan is one of them.

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