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A still from the movie.
A still from the movie.

Film Review: Jaanisaar

Muzaffar Ali's costume drama set 20 years after the 1857 war of independence, is riddled with problems

Muzaffar Ali’s last feature film as director was the 1981 classic Umrao Jaan. Thirty-four years later, he returns with another costume drama set 20 years after the first war of independence in 1857.

The film opens with Lord Macaulay’s 1834 address to the British parliament. From there, we cut to scenes of a gravedigger, a young boy being mentored by Queen Victoria, a girl being trained in combat one minute and popping up at a kotha (brothel) the next. Suddenly, the boy has grown up. Still an Indian prince by birth, but an Englishman by training. Raja Ameer Haider (Imran Abbas Naqvi ) returns to the opulence of his royal life in Awadh, where he instantly falls in love with the courtesan Noor (Pernia Qureshi).

But the English colonizers represented by the woman-beating Lord Cavendish (Carl Wharton) have different plans. Divide and rule, collect taxes, burn the crop and grow opium and let the natives starve. By and by, Haider sees the evil ways of the foreign oppressors and, propelled by his love for Noor and the discovery of his past, becomes a jaanisaar (one who sacrifices his life for a purpose). While this might sound plausible, the narrative jumps around in such an incoherent way that it takes the best part of 2 hours before one comprehends the plot.

Jaanisaar is a catalogue of problems, not least the messed-up script, which carries five writer credits. Add to this a wooden lead actor and a debutant who spends most of her time posing like a teapot—propping up the swathes of brocade she’s draped in.

For all the seemingly authentic locations, the painted backdrops make certain scenes look like a school play. Most surprising are the dance sequences. They do not do justice to Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia, the celebrated dancers credited with the choreography, in no small measure owing to the complete miscasting of Qureshi. Besides being co-writer, producer, director, composer, Ali also takes on an acting role—as the epitome of a jaanisaar and the aforementioned gravedigger.

If there is anything you take away from this over-styled indulgence, it’s the showcase for the beautiful craftsmanship of Indian weavers, embroiderers and Meera and Muzaffar Ali’s design house, Kotwara, accessorized with rich jewels from the Amrapali brand.

Jaanisaar released in theatres on Friday.

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