A small-town girl returns home in an entertaining film that’s as much about saving the performing arts as showcasing Madhuri Dixit.
NOV 25, 2007 – I HAVEN’T SEEN THE PORTUGUESE-LANGUAGE XUXA REQUEBRA, which is reportedly what Anil Mehta’s iAaja Nachle is a reworking of, but considering that the story is about a Puckish sprite who awakens in those around her the potent magic of love – love for taken-for-granted spouses, love for hovering-in-the-wings boyfriends and girlfriends, love for the performing arts – the film may just as well be a reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the beginning, small-towner Diya (Madhuri Dixit) disregards her parents’ wish that she marry Mohan (Ranvir Shorey), and elopes with an American photographer with the National Geographic – and it isn’t a stretch to see the parallel to Hermia disregarding her parents’ choice of husband and eloping with Lysander.
I’m not suggesting that Mehta (or his writer Jaideep Sahni) took the Vishal Bhardwaj route and plundered the Bard’s work (even if Diya does tell her best friend Najma – played by Divya Dutta — about her impending elopement, the way Hermia confided in Helena; even if Aaja Nachle winds up with a reenactment of the tragedy of Laila and Majnu, the way Dream ends with a performance of the doomed love story of Pyramus and Thisbe). But just as the barebones plot of Chak De India – say – comes from underdog-sports stories down the ages, Aaja Nachle owes its existence to magical-outsider-shaking-things-up tales from the past. The point is simply to see how this particular reworking comes together in the presence of this particular huge star.
At least, that was the frame of mind I was in about a half-hour into Aaja Nachle, which is about Diya (now a dancer in New York, and a single mom) returning to her small town and discovering that her guru has died. (This shaman-like teacher of the fine arts – nritya and sangeet, we’re told, as opposed to mere naach and gaana, though the tunes and the steps all look and sound like nothing more than good, old-fashioned naach-gaana – is played by Darshan Zariwala in hippie-Jesus robes, and it’s a nice touch that his last words to Diya aren’t conveyed through a letter, but through a 16-mm film. Even on his deathbed, the man clearly felt the need for drama.)
His dance school, Ajanta, is about to make way for a shopping mall (which seems to the urban affliction of choice at the multiplex these days; last week’s Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal was about a football ground about to make way for… a shopping mall) – and Diya decides to shake her townspeople out of their apathetic stupor by proving (through that Laila-Majnu show) that “Kala ko shehar ki nahin, shehar ko kala ki zaroorat hai,” that people need art. (Of course, you have to get past the irony that here’s a film that preaches tolerance for the kind of performing art that the movies have practically helped wipe out. Who goes to a nautanki or a tamasha anymore, now that the latest Bollywood blockbuster is playing next door?)
The events so far amount to the very definition of a star vehicle – and that Aaja Nachle certainly is. Madhuri Dixit has always been one of our most beautiful actresses – not just pretty, but beautiful, in a manner that suggests that God sat down at His drafting table and chewed on His pencil before creating her – but it wasn’t till Devdas that I noticed how luminous she’s become. Perhaps she knows now that she has nothing left to prove, and that she’s the last of the all-in-one female stars who could do drama and comedy and dance and also flash a smile that looked like a million bucks.
You sense that confidence in her now – that almost-regal imperiousness, born from the realisation that the instant she enters a scene, all eyes will turn to her – and she’s wonderful in this part where performer and person fuse into one. When she finishes dancing to Salim-Sulaiman’s rousing title track and turns to the audience – her face flushed with the exhilaration of a job well done, with the satisfaction of having achieved her goal of drawing people to the theatre, with the obvious pleasure of basking in the hooting applause – it’s hard to tell apart Diya and Dixit. You can’t imagine how Madhuri leads that other life in Denver, away from the spotlight she so clearly enjoys (and is so clearly entitled to).
But the surprise of Aaja Nachle is that it’s powered not just by this old-world star wattage but by New Bollywood’s leaps in character delineation. Diya isn’t an annoyingly earnest NRI filled with rose-tinted nostalgia for what she’s left behind. It’s established fairly early that all this dancing and singing is generally frowned upon in the town. (Diya enters her home as the song Aaj kal paon from Ghar is playing on the radio, and when her parents complain about her spending time at Ajanta, she shoots back at the hypocrisy that they do not mind it when Lata Mangeshkar performs in public, so why the double standards with her!)
And by eloping with that American photographer, Diya has made a personal contribution to this bad rap enjoyed by the performing arts – for after she ran away, other parents kept their kids away from the school, scared that they too may end up with rebellious, runaway children. Reinstating Ajanta to its former glory, therefore, is important to Diya – not just because of the vaguely uplifting notion of helping people by putting them in touch with their inner singer-dancers (in other words, their inner Madhuri Dixits), but also because she needs to get this guilt off her back.
But this point isn’t belaboured – just as almost nothing in Aaja Nachle is, which is why, perhaps, it feels so refreshingly lightweight. (Almost all the heavy drama is reserved for the Laila-Majnu performance at the end.) When Diya sees Imran (Kunal Kapoor) demolishing the props at Ajanta, the moment isn’t mined for its dramatic value. You’d think that this waifish NRI, after so many years away from the harsh realities of India, would get intimidated by this bullying thug – but Diya merely laughs and exclaims that she’s found the hero for her play. (He becomes her Majnu.) A potential detour into high histrionics is dissipated with a flash of a mega-watt smile.
And yet, Aaja Nachle doesn’t shy away from showing us who Diya really is – an NRI who may be “Indian” but who is also “Non Resident” (or even “Non Returning,” as the joke goes). There’s a Western coolness, an un-Indian detachment from people that you sense in Diya – especially when she doesn’t make an attempt to go after her estranged parents. In fact, she doesn’t talk about them at all. There are no dewy reveries about her childhood either, or about her childhood friend Najma, who doesn’t exactly welcome her back with open arms. Diya has come here with a mission. She has a job to do, and then she has a plane to catch – and that flinty sense of purpose is a new dimension to the Indian heroine, even one of a certain age.
Even at the end, while bidding goodbye to the townspeople who’ve supported her cause, there are no hugs, no teary farewell speeches. A pat on the shoulder, a caricature-face to lighten the moment – and she’s off. It’s interesting – and perhaps inevitable – to contrast Diya with Mohan Bhargava, the NRI from Swades, who, after all those years abroad, found himself the repository of all things Indian after a trip back home, and I liked it that Aaja Nachle didn’t feel the need to leave the audience on a melodramatic high-note. After all, it is possible to be outside India and still be “Indian,” whatever that means.
Aaja Nachle also shares with Swades Ashutosh Gowariker’s generosity of spirit, his love for the small person in the small town. The film is filled with fine actors (including Yashpal Sharma, Raghuvir Yadav, Akhilendra Mishra, and Irrfan Khan as Najma’s husband Farrukh) in parts painted with broad, but vivid strokes – and by the end, by that final performance of the Laila-Majnu dance drama, it’s true communal theatre we’re participating in, for we feel part of this community. It’s like cheering our loved ones in a school play. But like Swades, Aaja Nachle does go overboard in trying to address a few too many issues (though in a much lighter fashion) – women’s emancipation, for one – that are resolved rather simplistically.
But when you find yourself liking a film, you look for reasons to explain away the things that you don’t like as much – and what I took away from Aaja Nachle is that it’s set in some sort of utopia, where (as Diya explains it) Hindus and Muslims are in peaceful coexistence, where there is abundant water and electricity, and where the only problem with the streets appears to be the odd stray dog. And as long as we’re buying into this fantasy, it doesn’t seem out of place that all it takes is a kind word or a friendly gesture to make things right with the world again.
And Aaja Nachle is full of small, lovely moments about this world, about these people – like Ranvir Shorey (brilliant as the dumped fiancé), who crumples up the poster announcing Diya’s show, and later irons it back into shape. You sense that he’s gotten over the hurts of the past simply because he cannot see himself anymore with this exotic creature who’s returned from the West. (It must have been easier to pine for her when he still thought of her as a fellow small-towner.) Even as you wish for him to play a bigger part in the film, you know he cannot play a bigger part in Diya’s life.
Akshaye Khanna is also very good as the nominal villain of the piece, and he gets the film’s biggest laugh when he picks on Diya’s Noo Yawk accent. (He also gets a brilliantly written scene, where he plots with Irrfan Khan over a game of golf.) Konkona Sen Sharma – who plays Anokhi, and who becomes Laila to Imran’s Majnu – is the only one who didn’t do much for me here. This is one of the rare times I caught her “acting,” even if it is fun to see this art-house darling slip into the most mainstream of heroine-moves, gliding about in trademark Yash Chopra chiffons.
I suspect, more than anything, what put Aaja Nachle over for me was that it gave me the satisfaction of watching an all-out “Hindi film” – whether it’s the language, the way these people talk (not the generic Hindi we’ve come to expect these days, but the colourful, flavourful version, which does as much as, say, the costumes, to illuminate these characters and their surroundings; teri titli si woh gaali goes a line of lyric in the Show me your jalwa number, hinting at cusswords that soar like butterflies), or the recap of the little signpost moments that we know from years of watching Hindi cinema.
When Diya meets Najma for the first time, Farrukh asks about her husband, and Diya’s daughter tells him that her parents are divorced. This revelation is contrasted with Najma helping Farrukh put his coat on – and you instantly know what the equation in that marriage is. And later, when they’re holding auditions for the play and when this girl comes up and heaves her bosom to Dhak dhak karne laga – a signpost moment if there ever was one – it’s a fitting salute to a heroine who rose over bad costumes and unflattering cinematography (remember those days of relentless soft-focus?) to become the sole reason many of us watched Hindi films at one time. And all these years on, Madhuri Dixit still makes it look as easy as ek, do, teen.
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