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Was Umrao Jaan for real?
Syed Firdaus Ashraf | November 02, 2006 13:41 IST
Who was Umrao Jaan?
Many people may like to believe that Umraojaan existed for real, but to this date there is a controversy on whether such a courtesan existed in the 19th century, as depicted in Umra-O-Jaan-E-Ada, a novel written in 1904 by Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa.
Says writer Javed Siddiqui, who wrote Muzaffar Ali's 1981 Umrao Jaan, "There have always been two opinions. I believe she never existed in this world. If she existed where is her grave? No one knows till this date. The book of Ruswa became so famous and an Urdu literature classic that everyone thought that Umrao Jaan is a real character, but it is not true."
Born in 1857, Ruswa was a teacher, poet and an author and wrote only five novels in his lifetime. This novel is the story of Ameeran, a girl from a lower middle class family. She is kidnapped as a child and ends up a nautch girl, rechristened as Umrao Jaan.
The only work of his that enjoyed acclaim after this was the novel Sharif Zada. Ruswa eventually moved out of Lucknow and settled down in Hyderabad before he passed away in 1931.
Amaresh Misra, author Lucknow: Fire of Grace believes Umrao Jaan really existed.
"Ruswa met Umrao in 1882 when she was reduced to penury," says Misra. "She was living as a destitute and she told her life story to him."
In his opinion, Umrao Jaan left Lucknow for Bhairach district in 1858 after Lucknow fell to Britishers, and moved back only much later in life, at an old age.
Amaresh is convinced Umrao was real because he feels there is historic evidence backing him.
"The character of dacoit Fazal Ali existed and he was killed in 1856. He was from Gonda and people of Gonda fought against Britishers in 1857 during the revolt because they killed their leader. This fact is recorded in history."
In the book, Fazal Ali meets Umrao and falls in love with her after Nawab Sultan refuses to marry her.
Fazal Ali's character (called Faiz Ali in the movies) was played by Raj Babbar in 1981, and will be played by Suniel Shetty in the new film.
"Secondly," says Amaresh, "there's the character of Azizunbai, the famous courtesan. When the Britishers deposed Azizunbai for plotting against them in 1857, she said she was a disciple of Umrao Jaan, and this fact too is recorded in history."
The British executed Azizunbai, and till this day her grave exists in Kanpur.
Interestingly, the new Umrao Jaan will be Bollywood's fourth attempt at telling Ruswa's story. The first film came in 1958, called Mehndi, after which Zindagi Aur Toofan followed in 1975. Then came the 1981 classic by Muzaffar Ali.
The latest director J P Dutta says, "There is still a lot of speculation and awe about Umrao Jaan in Lucknow; whether she was really there, if she is a real character or Ruswa's imagination. Some people also say that she was Ruswa's mother."
Concludes Iftakhar Imam Siddiqui, noted Urdu poet, "I believe Umrao Jaan was not a real character and Ruswa wrote that character reflecting its time. His character Umrao Jaan became more famous than him."