Umrao Jaan Ada was released in December 1972. It was a popular film and ran for 50 weeks in cinemas in Karachi.

The story upon which the film is based is a classic of Urdu literature. Umrao Jaan Ada is considered by some to be the first novel in the Urdu language and takes its title from the professional name of a famous courtesan from Lucknow. Mirza Hadi Ruswa, the author, was apparently acquainted with Umrao Jaan (though her historicity is not confirmed), and upon his request she narrated her story to him. The book is told in the first person and tells how she was kidnapped, trafficked and rose to fame as a much-sought after female companion to the nawabs of Awadh.

The novel, which is full of tragedy and romance, has inspired several films in Pakistan, including Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan in 1981. The Pakistani version was released almost a decade before Ali’s picture, and it is difficult not to conclude that the Indian version was influenced by this cross-border film.

The Pakistani version does a good job of recreating the noble culture of Lucknow, especially its highly contrived social etiquette and deeply held values of honour, purity and class. Director Tariq Hassan (Ik Gunah Aur Sahi, Neend) does an excellent job of poking fun at the artifice, sycophancy and licentiousness that characterised a feudal culture on the verge of collapse. His use of exaggerated hand gestures and incessant eulogising by hangers on at first seems over the top but you soon understand that this is deliberate mockery.

While Rani does an excellent job of portraying the deep emotional wounds as well as the steely determination of the kidnapped Ameeran (Umrao Jan’s given name), her dances are a faint shadow of what Rekha conjured. Perhaps the choreographers were unfamiliar with traditional forms of dancing and unsure about how to direct her.

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain from Umrao Jan Ada (1971).

Nisar Bazmi composed a sonically authentic and solid score built around the sarangi, the chief instrument of vocal accompaniment until the advent of the harmonium in the late 19th century. Saifuddin Saif, the respected poet and lyricist, wrote some memorable lyrics while Runa Laila handled most of the lead vocals. The more I listen to Runa’s singing, the more I am impressed by its deep melodious core which, while gorgeous does not quite match the raw emotion of an unhappy Umrao Jan.

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain (I’ve Come to Steal the Things That Remain) is the final song of the film and comes just a few minutes before the end. After Salim marries and then cruelly discards Umrao, she swears never to meet him again. But Salim remains smitten and refuses to comply with his father’s demand that he marry his cousin Farzana.

Angry and frustrated, Nawabsahib (Talish) approaches Umrao and pleads with her to dance one final time for Salim at his house so that “he will remember you as you are – just a prostitute and not a wife”. Though she has refused to see him, for the sake of their child and her desire to let Salim (Shahid) get on with his life, she agrees.

Bazmi correctly chooses Noor Jehan, by this time a seasoned 30-year veteran of films, rather than Runa, for singing this dramatic, emotionally intense song.

The first verse is sung directly to Salim, who squirms uncomfortably with guilt and regret. After each line, Bazmi inserts a dark billow of strings that moves the melody up both the musical and emotional scale. Noor Jehan is virtually at the outer reaches of her soprano as the feeling builds and builds. The next verse is addressed to her young son, who sits on the lap of Nawabsahib, not recognising his mother. As the verse comes to a close, the child breaks into tears and reaches out for Umrao, who embraces him only to be grabbed away by a disgusted Salim.

Umrao’s tragic singing exposes the cruelty, hypocrisy and secrets of all the respectable people in the room. With her work done, she races from the house.

A version of this story appeared on the blog and has been reproduced here with permission.