The setting is a romantic, sinful yet classy confines of a kotha (a courtesan’s hall & not a brothel). The costume is spectacularly fitting to the voluptuous curves of Rekha without being vulgar. The dance is smooth & seductive without being explicitly coy (this is set in the India of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s). But what surpasses all of these individual cuts of the diamond is the sheer attitude & pluck of the song borne in the haughty lyrics (Shahryar is a gem unheard of by most Indians), carried in the voice of a singer known for her pride & unleashed in the sheer persona of Rekha, known widely for being a bold actress of Bollywood. Such an uncanny combination of vitality & vital embers leaves this song unmatched & clearly the best of what Time & the Hindi movie industry had to offer.If you haven’t watched the movie Umrao Jaan I would urge you to do so before reading the rest of this post. I assure you, I will leave it here till you return. If you do not have access to the movie & aren’t privy to the programme schedule of all relevant movie channels, then I urge you to watch the video below. Whatever you do, please do not watch the Umrao Jaan of recent years, a shabby & presumptuous remake of the original classic.
I shall now, nervously, proceed to translate this song. If you are familiar with Urdu, please do not read what remains of this post. I can never do justice to such potent lyrics. No, I have none to recommend to provide better translation. Perhaps, Nabokov, if well versed in Urdu, might have managed something better.
This is one of the few ghazals in Hindi movies. We often think any slow Urdu-sounding song in the movies is a ghazal. Often they are merely nazms. This one, though, is a ghazal minus the takhallus. In case you wish to know more about ghazals, I would refer you to my post here. I skip over refrains & the ghamaks of the singer.
In aankhon ki masti ke, mastane hazaaron hain
In aankhon se vaabastaa, afsaane hazaaron hain
In the inebriety of these eyes, the tipsy are aplenty
Entwined with these eyes, legends (too) are aplenty
Ik tum hi nahin tanha, ulfat mein meri rusvaa
Is shahar mein tum jaise, deewane hazaaron hain
You aren’t sole to hail yourself, a lover-neglected
In this town, such as you, madmen are aplenty
Ik sirf humi mai ko, aankhon se pilaate hain
Kahane ko to duniya mein, maikhaane hazaaron hain
There is only I whose eyes serve you the finest wine
Though ’tis said, in this world (mere) taverns are aplenty
Is shamm-e-faroza ko, aandhi se daraate ho
Is shamm-e-faroza ke, parvaane hazaaron hain
I, this brilliant flame, you scare with a storm (of your rage)?
In this luminous blaze’s thrall lovers (moths) are aplenty
Sip the lyrics tenderly, dear reader. Such lines were not made for quaffing. Note the vanity infused in each line, especially from the 2nd sher (stanza) on. Not only does Umrao not treat a lover’s plight with condescension she also rubs salt on his wound by debunking it to the level of madmen aspiring to be her lover & populating the streets of Lucknow (where this movie was set). So sure is she of her charm & hold over the infatuated that she wouldn’t hesitate to debunk all love that doesn’t appeal to her. Nevertheless, she does it with aplomb.
In the 3rd stanza she moves to extolling her uniqueness. She proceeds to aver (not suggest or hint) that she is the sole wielder of the skill of intoxicating anyone with her eyes. The sheer pluck of this lady is revealed in the line that follows: Kehane ko duniya mein, maikhaane hazaaron hain. “Kehane ko” is an idiom which poorly maps to the English phrase of “hollow claim”. In that line, Umrao, tongue-in-cheek, states that there are many ersatz taverns in the world which can only claim to serve wine & that too not as she does (with her eyes).
In the last sher she moves from chiding the lover (2nd sher) to bragging (3rd sher) to mustering her fans. Here she challenges the storm anyone dares bring upon her in the hope of quelling her grandeur. She cautions that lover to think twice because there are myriad lovers who, like moths to a flame, will lay down their lives for her sake.
I wonder where & when such creative prowess & such splendid combination of artists will recur.