Subhash K. Jha speaks about Aaja Nachle

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By Subhash K. Jha, IndiaFM

That's Madhuri Dixit in her comeback. Chiselled, charming, chirpy and enchanting….Madhuri dances her way into the tailor-made plot and takes to the screen like she had never been away.

Writer Jaideep Sahni has given the gorgeous Dixit a role she can sink her teeth into. Meaty and majestic, the character is rebellious and yet ravishing. A dancer returns to a small conservative town years after she eloped with her American husband, married and settled down in the US, only to return to her dusty desi domain (what happened to her cross-cultural marriage is quickly swept under the carpet in one voice-over statement) with a cynical little daughter who keeps wondering when she can go home. Frankly after a while, so do we. Cinematographer turned director Anil Mehta furnishes the story of cultural clash and the prodigal daughter's return to the roots with a ‘minty melt-in-the-mouth’ sensation. You have it. And you move on. In a film that addresses itself to the critical question of cultural erosion/invasion/evasion, there is a lamentable lack of lucidity in the narration. You are given the characters who govern the theme. But you aren't given a chance to look at their lives and socio-cultural conflicts in any depth or detail. Too many people inhabit Mehta's quaint appealing but finally unsubstantiated world of half-lived dreams and forgotten values.

The screenplay resorts to the oldest trick in the book of inspirational art. Bunches of chronic losers are provided impetus encouragement and final triumph by a disgraced coach.

Caught it? Aaja Nachle takes the Goal scenario from Lagaan and Chak De India and trans-locates it to the fine arts. The results are fitfully humorous and enticing but never exploratory in any serious or durable way. The clash of the 'traditional' and the 'modern' was gloriously resplendent in K. Vishwanath's Jaag Utha Insaan where that other screen queen Sridevi danced her way into the temple-portals without looking like anything but a certifiable screen goddess.

Madhuri plays her Reigning Diva's role far more humanly. She is spunky fiery, acerbic and hot-tempered, liable to give the sardonic businessman (Akshay Khanna, in a surprisingly warm cameo) a tongue-lashing with the same ferocity that she invests into sweet-talking the local politician (Akhilendra Mishra) into political patronage. But somewhere the Laila-Majnu sub-plot featuring Kunal Kapoor and Konkona Sen as the local goon and female buffoon, respectively, gets the better of the narration. In the second-half Anil Mehta limited powers of storytelling starts to sag seriously. Blessedly Madhuri does not.

Stunningly statuesque and expressive she carries the weight of the over-populated plot on her frail shoulders with endearing enthusiasm. Madhuri becomes unequal to the task when the absurdities begin to pile up in a plot finally culminates in the naïve idealism of the lengthy Laila-Majnu skit on stage. Which seems to be choreographed by H. S. Rawail for his feature film Laila –Majnu three decades ago rather than by Vaibhavi Merchant who is credited for the kitschy dances in Aaja Nachle?

Though there's much talk of sanskriti (culture), kalaa (art) and sabhyata (civilization) in the dialogues, none of this gets a roomy or deep representation in any of the sequences. Too busy cutting the scenes into trendy snippets, the editor somewhere loses the essence and spirit of the cultural theme. The multitudinous characters of the dusty town (brilliantly captured on camera by Mohanan) prepare for the Big Event (the dance ballet on Laila-Majnu) with as much seriousness as a bunch of kindergarten students putting together a birthday skit for their favorite teacher.

Besides the majestic Madhuri, the rest of talented cast also gets seriously supportive in this pale tale of losers and hooters. Standing out in the vast cast are Ranbir Shorey as Madhuri's still besotted jilted husband-to-be and Vinay Pathak as her stuffy landlord who learns to loosen up.

The actors rise and shine even when they are given ridiculous lines to mouth. Irrfan Khan, for example, as the stereotypical real-estate shark sinks his teeth into a role that requires out-and-out filmy villainy.

The choreography, sets, and costumes convey no sense of continuity. In the climactic act gym-built beefcakes emerge from nowhere in the backward town to line up as chorus dancers. The venue for dance performances looks like a plaster-of-paris representation of the Roman ruins. While the plot talks of fine arts and culture, Madhuri's dances look like carryovers from her dhak-dhak days.

Having said all this, let's make it explicitly clear that Aaja Nachle rises notches above the routine. Its heart is in the right place, even if the rationales of staging a musical play to redeem a sagging town falls apart somewhere down the line.