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Madhuri Dixit in Aaja Nachle
She isn't quite the same, you realise immediately as the megastar takes on precise steps in a Flashdance act, all legwarmers and right-angle pirouettes. She's older, and not the kind of sexy we are used to these days. Conditioned to hearing hard dhaks from inside our shirts at her every thumka, the first few seconds of this comeback film leave us nearly devastated.
Then, she breaks step. Instructing a lanky man in expressions and a younger woman in booty-shaking, life flits across her familiar face. A gamut of moods flow rapidly across, as we instantly, helplessly believe in her, in the spirited choreographer in action. Then, she tosses us that smile, and all is well with the world.
Well, almost all.
Aaja Nachle is a warm, well-intentioned and competently acted happy extravaganza - except, it fails to engage. Madhuri constantly and inimitably infuses life into Anil Mehta's directorial debut, yet this predictable film, while watchable, ends up -- the lethal word must be used -- pretty darned boring.
The thing -- we're told by way of flashback and the powerful vocals of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan -- is that Madhuri's Dia, life of the small fictional town of Shamli, fell in love with a photographer from National Geographic. While the town gasped at the scandal, Rooh Afza glasses frozen on hitherto welcoming trays, Dia told her refreshingly junkie dance teacher that she was off. He encouraged this following of the heart, she fled to the US, after which the lensman didn't seem quite the right fit anymore. Cut to the present day, with Dia the choreographer and single-mom returning prodigally to Shamli, cause her guru's liable to cough it.
Dia returns to her roots, the town's Ajanta Theatre, only to see it in ruins. A posthumous video message from the guru (thoughtfully viewable on HDV compatible projectors, bless his soul) begs Dia to resurrect the town's cultural hub, which she then decides to do, taking on swarthy politicians, deep-pocketed builders with shopping mall aspirations, and even the local Raja, a brand-wearing youth who prides himself on being able to make pizza. Not to mention a town that reportedly hates her.
Anyway, this Raja -- Akshaye Khanna [Images], in a neat special appearance giving him better lines than most of his lead roles -- is most bemused by this cultural activism. Dia promises to set up a massive show in Shamli, bringing forth the best dancers from her US troupe, but this is where the King neatly draws the line. 'The dan-cers,' he says, brilliantly mocking her accented twang -- something all of us have been itching to do -- 'should be local.' Thus the Lagaan [Images]-esque bet: that either Dia stage a complete musical using a ragtag bunch of Shamli players in two months, or Ajanta make way for a mall.
Simple plot then, but with much promise.
Ranvir Shorey, first and foremost. The film's most compelling character, Mohan is owner of the local tea-stall. Already been measured for his wedding sehra, he was downing a celebratory drink when Dia eloped, and has lamented this loss since. He reacts to Dia's return by ripping off the poster flaunting it in his face, but fails to throw away the crumpled ball of paper. As Dia's hunt for workable thespians gets increasingly frustrating, he sighs in bed, and fishes out the poster scrap, sighing at it by moonlight. He irons the paper thoroughly, with love, and there is much poignancy in his dreamy stares at a prettied-up Mads, on paper so hot you can see the smoke.
Yet this thread is left significantly unexplored. There is so much fantastic potential here, for awkwardness and much interesting conversation between him and Dia, even conflict, but things, while briefly brought up, are awkwardly dismissed to make room for more predictable frills. Later, when Mohan is a part of the cast, the day of the play sees him pasting flyers all over his menu. It's a great character, one you root for, and one who needed to be etched out better. Like the rest of the cast -- among whom Akhilendra Mishra is the other notable mention, besides Irrfan Khan [Images] who obviously manages a couple of disarming lines -- you feel the character sketches had more meat than the script itself.
And a word to those nice people at Yash Raj Films, entertaining us for decades: Adi, boss, you need to understand that while we are all desperately craving escape, it doesn't necessarily translate to excess. While Ajanta Theatre is a barely standing amphitheatre by day, the songs by night see it transformed into a mega set, a la Shiamak Dawar, accompanied by dozens of extras -- at a time when Dia's struggling for six people to fill her cast, and a day to do up the sets, this is purely inane. Oh, of course it's Bollywood, but a song and dance number in the heartlands can be small and realistic and yet utterly spectacular, just ask Ashutosh Gowariker or Vishal Bhardwaj. Escapism, yes, but with some rough edges. It's what gives a film its heart.
Aaja Nachle is a tragically half-baked film, bringing up questions and situations and interests, and then forgetting about them. The town is easily bullied into love, rebellion, defiance and disgust. Everything logiclessly works out with far too much convenience, even for a formulaic mainstream megastar vehicle, which this isn't. There is, however, a rather superbly done Laila-Majnu musical towards the end, a solid and most entertaining half hour -- although it might seem exhausting after the rest has dragged so much.
The rest of the time, you're watching characters flit by, wondering why so many of the cast look more like others: Divya Dutta [Images] uncannily like Vidya Balan [Images], Kunal Kapoor [Images] like Rohan Sippy and Konkana Sensharma like Antara Mali [Images], at least at the start.
Thankfully, Madhuri Dixit [Images] is still Madhuri Dixit. And that smile is worth a couple stars.
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