Jaanisaar review: Beautiful poetry, gorgeous costumes but a mockery of 1857
Dazzling in its visuals and costume drama, Jaanisaar attempts to recreate a romanticised, 19th-century Awadh
“Humein bhi pyaar kar le
Hamari bhi khabar le
Arey bana kar
Dil-o jaan jee jigar le
Jo paaye jam khali
Ijaazat hai ki bhar le…”
These lines are by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Akhtar, the ruler of Awadh who is better known for his poetry. Muzaffar Ali, director of the acclaimed, 1981 classic Umrao Jaan, uses the them as lyrics in a song, in Ali’s latest venture, Jaanisaar. It’s meant to impress, but unfortunately, all it serves to do is make the hollowness of Jaanisaar painfully evident.
Dazzling in its visuals and costume drama, Jaanisaar attempts to recreate a romanticised, 19th-century Awadh: the lost charm of Lucknow-gharana kathak, courtesans, epic love and the sweetness of chaste Urdu.
Those pre-1857 years have fascinated filmmakers across genres. Remember Satyajit Ray’s delightful gem, Shatranj Ke Khiladi? Amjad Khan was remarkable in his portrayal of Wajid Ali Shah in that film. On the other end of the spectrum was Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising, starring Aamir Khan.
The film was supposed to be historical and ended up to be spectacularly fictional. Jaanisaar, based on a story written by husband-wife duo Muzaffar Ali and Meera Ali (the latter is also producer and costume designer), suffers from the same flaw, despite its claim that the film is based on true events.
Coming back to Wajid Shah, in one scene, Raja Iqbal (Dalip Tahil), dressed in long, flowing kurta and wearing bangles (there’s a clichéd story about his shame at being a coward), makes a passing reference to the colourful nawab. Reciting a couplet about Krishna and swaying his waist for good measure, Iqbal says the Nawab has been misunderstood. He says Wajid Ali Shah danced, sang and wrote as Krishna and represented India’s intricate multi culture —“Ganga Jamuna Tehzeeb”.
This sentiment of lost “tehzeeb”, thanks to the British, is supposed to be Jaanisaar’s central point, but let’s not kid ourselves. No matter how many graves the long-haired gravedigger Meer Sahab (Muzaffar Ali) points to, this is a musical extravaganza. And while it’s not surprising that the film fails in terms of historicity, it is disappointing that the spectacle it delivers is so mediocre.
When the courtesan Noor (Pernia Qureshi) appears on screen, you are struck by the grace of her hand movements as she dances pieces choreographed by Pandit Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia. Her gorgeous silk and organza drapes, the glittering gold and pearls on her person are the object of admiring attention. All of which sounds lovely and the effect is comprehensively dashed by her voice and her acting. The dub is badly-synced and Qureshi has about as many expressions as a newsreader on Doordarshan. This is particularly sad because she gets beautiful, refined Urdu lines, written by Javed Siddiqui.
Under all that finery, Noor is living a double life: she’s also a revolutionary in training with Meer Sahab, getting ready to fight the British. She meets Ameer Haider (Imran Abbas), an England returned prince who has been adopted by the British queen. The two fall in love. They sing ghazals, go for elephant rides and exchange a few pecks. While they are a perfect picture of old world, blissful romance, we see a contrasting and violent sexual relationship between a psychotic British Viceroy, Cavendish (Carl Wharton) and his wife.
A mild conflict is created in Ameer and Noor’s love story through a predictable misunderstanding between the two. A farmer’s starvation and tax issue is thrown in, to show Ameer’s sense of responsibility as an Indian prince. Lo and behold, the courtesan and the prince turn into revolutionaries, riding horses through rivers, carrying flames, shouting a slogan momentarily and riding into the sunset, sorry, dark unknown chapters of pre-Independence India.
By the time Naseeruddin Shah’s voiceover is heard at the end, exhorting us to respect freedom-fighting heroes like Noor and Ameer, all you’ve got is a laughable mockery of Indian history.
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