Finding Umrao was not easy. It was her aura and faith in my dream that would make her a legend. I still wonder what the chemistry was that created this immortal legend. This was when I began to understand the power of belief. And it is this sacred belief that lives on in the world of art.
One day, I saw a pair of eyes looking at me from a magazine at a barber’s shop at the Taj Mahal hotel. I picked up the magazine. It was Umrao Jaan’s gaze. It sent shockwaves through me. The same eyes struck a chord with Subhashini, and then, grudgingly, with Shama, who was always difficult to please. They struck the same chord with Khaiyyam, Shahryar and, finally, with S.K. Jain, who jumped at the idea as the face behind that gaze was commercially viable! Rekha!
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Why Subhashini and I took Shama with us to meet Rekha, I have no idea. Shama could never sell anything to anyone. She expected people to probe themselves and pick up the idea. Unexpectedly, something exactly like that happened. Shama’s screenplay sense was diametrically opposite to the conventional Bollywood approach of first praising the artist sky-high, then the role and then the set-up. But Rekha was very intelligent. The less we said, the more she saw in it!
We came out of the meeting shell-shocked at what the three of us had achieved. Subhashini was our future interface with Rekha for most things.
Rekha was different. She was beautiful within. She came from a lineage where time stands still and makes people into gods. I was approaching a potential goddess. Urdu was a journey I did not want to rush her through. It was going to come to Rekha most organically, through everyone who was going to meet her. Somebody asked Javed Akhtar about Aishwarya Rai’s sense of Urdu in the Umrao Jaan remake. He quipped in his typical way, ‘Khuda jab husn deta hai toh Urdu aa hi jaati hai (When God blesses you with beauty, Urdu comes naturally).’ I believed in Daagh who had said,
Nahīñ khel ai Daagh yaroñ se keh do,
Ki aati hai Urdu zubaañ aate aate.
(It’s not child’s play, tell your friends, O Daagh,
The language of Urdu comes slowly, very slowly.)
Urdu to me is not about using rhetoric to impress the audience, but touching souls with your breath. You breathe Urdu. It resonates within. It stays with you forever.
I always maintained that Urdu opens to you through a galaxy of teachers, each bringing their own nuances to its sounds and expressions. These exposures have to be designed based on your own experience of a culture, besides just remembering the lines. I could see Urdu being born through Umrao’s smiles and tears. Each poem by Umrao opened a new window into Rekha’s soul. Each couplet tore her apart like a ship in a storm. Each melody rocked her like no kathak step had ever done. Each metaphor enabled her to find new expressions to live up to the emotional lyricism. There were no words left to describe what people saw in Umrao’s character.
Rekha, knowingly and unknowingly, was wading into waters that would run deep enough to drown anyone else. I was afraid that if the spell broke it would become crass and commonplace. But she went through it gracefully, true to a culture completely alien to her. She could have stopped at any moment and asked why we were doing this. But I never heard the word ‘why’. Or even the word ‘money’.
Rekha went the extra mile in doing a scene. She was performing for an internal force coming from within. Whatever she spoke or wore came from her soul, and there is no actor who can come close to this. Everyone wants to become a Rekha as in Umrao Jaan, but they have no idea what it takes to reach that level of surrender. This was a taste of living Sufism for me and for audiences for all time to come. I have felt many actors, singers and dancers come close to that while working, as long as they didn’t touch the element of worldliness and commerce.
Rekha took her role to another level, working with Shaukat Kaifi as Khanum Jaan, who opened the world of the courtesan to Dina Pathak as Bua Husaini, who gave Umrao motherly comfort. The veteran Jagirdar, as Maulvi Sahab, opened a spiritual world for her, while Naseeruddin Shah, as Gowher Mirza, introduced her to the sensual world. Farouque Shaikh was her world of love and Raj Babbar, as dacoit Faiz Ali, her spirit of adventure. But finally, it was her own mother in the film, Farrukh Jafar, who helped her tear into the hearts of people like a searing hot blade, leaving them scarred forever.
For each technician, Umrao scaled new heights of perfection. Parveen Bhat, my cameraman, never came out of the trance as he sat on the stool of the trolley, tracking back and forth. My editor, Bhagwati Prasad, was a hardcore Gujarati who had never spoken to Rekha in his life. But with each cut he would exclaim discreetly, ‘Phadi nakis (Ripped apart)!’ Interpret it the way you want. And finally, my sound recordist, B.K. Chaturvedi, who went with me on the endless train journey to Madras to dub her voice at the Balaji Sound Studio. This, for me, was quintessential to creatingUmrao Jaan.
At that time Rekha was known to dub an entire film in six hours, and she was confident that she would be able to wrap up our dubbing within one shift. But it took a good ten days to breathe emotion, Lucknow and Umrao into each frame.
Rekha came from a lineage of powerful women. Rekha’s grandmother, Muthulakshmi Reddy, was born in the late nineteenth century in the princely state of Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu to an academician father, Narayanswami Iyer, and a Devadasi mother. Devadasis were women who were ostensibly ‘dedicated’ to temple deities and tasked with passing on the baton of the art of dance to the next generation. But in reality they were viewed as ‘fallen women’, often subjected to sexual exploitation.* Fortunately, Muthulakshmi’s father gave her the power of education, and the maharaja of Pudukottai funded her study of medicine. She became the first woman to enter Madras Medical College and finally become a surgeon specializing in cancer. She spent her life establishing a cancer hospital and working on the liberation of the Devadasis.
Excerpted from ‘Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time’ by Muzaffar Ali with permission from Penguin Random House India.