The legend of Umrao Jaan lives on

GRACEFUL: Pratibha Singh Baghel
GRACEFUL: Pratibha Singh Baghel



THE challenging role of famed courtesan Umrao Jaan has been taken on by various leading ladies across the years, including Rekha and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, but the most authentic portrayal has perhaps been by Pratibha Singh Baghel in the new stage musical of the famed story.

The multi-talented star acts, dances and sings live for the role in the stage adaptation of the classic story, which has played to packed houses in India and premieres in UK at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on January 22.

She portrays a woman who was sold into a brothel as a girl and grows up to become the irresistible courtesan Umrao Jaan. The story is set in 19th century Lucknow. The stage musical has the magnificence of the 1981 film and the added magic of it being live.

Pratibha Singh Baghel, who has sung for various high-profile Bollywood films, was clearly looking forward to the show when Eastern Eye caught up with her to find out more.

You have had great success in India, but how did you feel performing a lead role in the UK premiere of Umrao Jaan?
Even though the play was so well received across India, the anxiety before the opening in London cannot be understated. It is such an iconic role and a story that is so well known. I’m aware that for many in London, comparisons will be drawn from the 1981 film character and this has its added pressure. But representing the role is such a privilege, and without doubt, opening in London will be the highlight of my career.

Tell us about the character and story for those who don’t know it?
The main character, Umrao is, at face value, a beautiful singer and a graceful dancer. Underneath the objective beauty and talent, she is a poet at heart. Recognised as such, she recounts her life story and this tale takes the listener through her journey. While the portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow is really brought together by the entire cast and production, the message is possibly truer today than it ever has been – the story and strength of a remarkable woman in a man’s world.

What was the greatest challenge of portraying this role?
The character Umrao Jaan is talented and graceful at the same time, and has complex interactions with other characters. I know I have risen to the challenge of singing, but I hope I have done justice to Pooja Pant’s Kathak choreography, which is one of India’s most beautiful forms of art, and it gives this production its encore.

How does the stage version compare to the movie versions?
They are two different art forms and with a musical – there are no re-takes. People will always compare – a book to a movie, a movie to a play, a book to a play and so on. There is no getting away from that. What I can say is that the creators have been true to the original work in as much as they could. If you ask me which one I prefer, there can be no comparison, the play will always win for me. (Smiles) But I guess I would say that.

Did you reference the original Hindi film version?
As an artist, I did not use the film as a reference. Director Rajeev Goswami has a passion and vision for the play, which was extracted from the original novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, and we have all followed in that direction. However, as a trained singer, I am delighted to be able to perform live, the iconic songs in Rekhaji’s performance in the film Umrao Jaan.

What new elements have been added?
As a theatrical rendition of the novel Umrao Jaan Ada, everything about the production is unique and the first time ever that Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel has been adapted to such an international platform. The audience will be immersed in 19th century Lucknow, along with live music, vocals, authentic verse, amazing choreography and exquisite sets.

What is your favourite moment in the production?
There are so many moments, which I applaud time and again. Two soul-moving moments for me are when my character accepts her fate in the court of Lucknow and begins to channel her inner self through her poetry – I wish I were so talented, and second, on a personal level, it is my performance of a new compilation – Hum Rahe Ya Na Rahe, beautifully penned and composed, allowing my character to express her pain in love. I hope this resonates with the audience too.

This production has a strong cast. How much does it help when you are with such good actors on stage?
It is without doubt the single most thing you wish for (after a great director and storyline, of course). It has been phenomenal working with such talent. The ability to create and share a vision only hearts comes together when great actors unite with a common goal, which is to entertain.

What has the response been like in India?
Fantastic. I was elated with the reception in India. We started at a sell-out performance in Delhi and recently finished our Mumbai season with a standing ovation. People are already asking when the show is returning to India.

How much are you looking forward to it being staged in UK?
To open in London’s West End is truly awe-inspiring. It helps that so many of the cast and crew have successfully performed in London before. I am truly looking forward to meeting people in the UK and can’t wait for it.

Why do you think Umrao Jaan is still so loved as a story?
There is no expiry date on a great story. We believe (as did the author) that the novel is based on true events and it stands the test of time, as I think it is just as relevant today in London as it was in 19th century Lucknow.

What is the best thing about theatre for you as an actor?
The special relationship and connection you have with the audience, which you simply do not get anywhere else. A live performance means that you are constantly engaging with the audience; you hear instantly their sighs, laughter and tears. Your emotions become theirs and vice versa. It is a unique immersive experience. Each performance is akin to telling the same story to a different friend or a loved one.

You must love that instant reaction…
The reaction is never the same, so the experience for me as a performer is never the same. There’s a beautiful quote from Terence Mann, “movies make you famous, television makes you rich, but theatre makes you good.”

What makes for good theatre?
An audience. It is where it begins and ends. Simple. Entertain them, listen to them and engage with them. Beyond that, all the ingredients need to be present. For us, our ingredients are fresh and pleasing.

Why should we come watch the Umrao Jaan Ada play?
So many reasons. The play is truly inspiring. The story will leave you with a thirst to know more. The music is astounding, the dances riveting, and the sets will tingle your senses. We would like to share something special with you and leave you with the colours of India, the sounds of joy and the gentle strength of a woman.

Finally, why do you love being an actor?
Come and see me in London and you’ll see why. How else could I ever be Umrao Jaan?

Umrao Jaan Ada – The Musical is on at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN from January 22-26.