When Rekha said she didn’t deserve a national award for Umrao Jaan: ‘I don’t think I did anything special’


Rekha personifies the word diva in the truest sense of the word in Bollywood. The veteran actor, who can easily be listed as one of the most successful actors in Hindi cinema, has delivered unprecedented characters. And one of them is Umrao Jaan, directed by ace filmmaker Muzaffar Ali. The 1981 film has Rekha as a courtesan and traces her rise and life.

At the time, Umrao Jaan won all the awards for Rekha’s performance, music, art and direction. It also earned Rekha her only national Best Actress award. The actor, however, felt she didn’t deserve it.


In a 1986 return interview with the BBC Asian Unit, Rekha got honest about one of her landmark films, Umrao Jaan. In the video, uploaded by Waseem Mahmood to YouTube, Rekha revealed how she got into the titular role, without any training.

“I have never taken any training for Umrao Jaan. I know it’s hard to believe but I have never learned a word in Urdu. I shouldn’t say this but even today I have problems with “ki” and “ka”. But it’s true. I don’t think I did anything special to earn a national award for Umrao Jaan, ”Rekha said in part of the interview.

National umrao jaan rekha award President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy presenting the National Award for Best Actress to Rekha for Umrao Jaan (1981). (Photo: Archives Express)

Umrao Jaan has also performed with mainstays like Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Shaukat Kaifi, Dina Pathak and others. It was based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada (1905).

umrao jaan farooq sheikh rekha Farooq Sheikh and Rekha in a still from Umrao Jaan. (Photo: Archives Express)


Adding further to how director Muzaffar Ali’s vision created magic on sets, Rekha quoted: “There was something in the film, that Umrao Jaan had just done. Maybe it just had to happen. I was going through a difficult phase in my personal life which was reflected in my face. Muzaffar Ali (director) is a very good painter, so his details on clothes, texture, colors, background were exceptional. For example the ‘paan daan’… So all of this made the atmosphere of the film very good.

Umrao Jaan was then remade with Aishwarya Rai playing the title role. While Abhishek Bachchan donned his male lead role, he also played Shabana Azmi, Suniel Shetty, Divya Dutta, Himani Shivpuri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and others. The 2006 film was directed by JP Dutta.


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