Curse of the comeback? Part One of Five: Madhuri Dixit in “Aaja Nachle” (2007)

This is part one of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

The first film looked at is Madhuri Dixit’s return to the big screen in late 2007’s “Aaja Nachle”, her first film since her memorable turn as Chandramukhi in “Devdas”, over five years earlier.

Madhuri Dixit, in fact made two comebacks – a second in 2012 with the film Dedh Ishqiya, which included the song “Hamari Atariya” which made the list of top 10 “anti-item songs” in a previous post, and as mentioned in said post, the film is unusual and provocative in several ways that warrant greater analysis generally outside this theme of “cursed” comebacks.

“Aaja Nachle” is a rather different comeback from “Dedh Ishqiya” as well, as Dixit did not, in fact, move back to India from the US, where she settled after marriage to an American, until late 2011, the same year as she began judging on the TV talent series Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing with the Stars).

The film was met with some positive, but largely mixed critical response, and disappointed at the box office. Given Madhuri Dixit’s still iconic status and lasting popularity, why this film didn’t succeed warrants analysis to determine if it was as it was a heroine-oriented comeback. This will help to decide whether all such comebacks are “cursed” and doomed to fail commercially.

Once again – here’s the SPOILER alert. Whilst far from a perfect film, watching “Aaja Nachle” is still recommended, and here’s the trailer below:

So, what actually works about “Aaja Nachle”?:

This is a dance film that actually has a plot and a message, and its interesting even if the film itself is not so sure:

The plot of the film sees Madhuri Dixit’s character Dia, return to the dance theatre where she first learnt to dance, to find it laid to waste and she is informed that her instructor has already passed away.

A video make by her teacher Makarand before he passed, specifically with a message for Dia shows him leaving as his final wish that the dance theatre Ajanta, which due to be demolished, is saved from destruction, as the land is due to be redeveloped as a shopping mall.

Dia meets with the local MP, Raja Uday Singh (played by Akshaye Khanna), to advocate in favour of preserving Ajanta, but on first meeting she berates him for keeping her waiting and mistakenly assumes he is too young to be the MP, and that he is rather the MP’s son. He dismisses the Ajanta theatre as ruins, and when Dia disagrees, he asks “you aren’t some activist type, are you?”. Both Dia and Uday emphasise that she is from New York (rather than Shamli).

MP Singh: Many NRIs like you come every other year for some social service and then go back. 

I suggest you do the same.

Dia: So you’re going to knock down our cultural heritage on a whim?

MP Singh: The day the people of Shamli can make a living off cultural heritage I’ll call you. Until then, let me do my job.

Dia: Is making a living all there is to life? Isn’t a little joy important?

She follows by promising to host “India’s biggest show ever” at Ajanta

MP Singh: Once the show’s over you and your team will leave for New York, and Ajanta will just be the way it is. In ruins.

He makes her an offer – if she puts on a show with only actors, singers and dancers from Shamli, he will leave Dia to do with Ajanta as she pleases. She agrees but not enthusiastically, presumably as she is quite aware of the mammoth task she is undertaking. She has two months to put on the show, but shows a greater confidence and fight in declaring she doesn’t need any more time. The stakes are not a particularly subtly flirtatious game.

However there is an argument here – what is the role of NRIs in influencing India? Do they stop caring? What is the meaning of returning and “giving back”? What role do they have to play and is it the right one? Where do the people who stay in (especially) small-town India fit into that? Through the prism of this conversation, and others throughout the movie, this idea is explored and the back on forth on what are the true answers to these difficult questions in a world of migration, of leaving, and of returning.

In the very next scene Dia declares: I’m Shamli’s whether she wants me or not.

Her daughter asks if they are going home to which Dia confirms. They arrive at her parents home and to the confused questions by her daughter she answers “[t]his is home”.

She has a “House That Built Me” moment where the new resident is bothered by her presence, yet the house still retains significant meaning for Dia. Bizarrely, they agree to rent Dia a room in the house.

She corrects her homesick daughter’s broken Hindi, refuses to return to the US (does her kid not have this thing called school?), and remains determined to revitalise Ajanta, as a symbol of her undying commitment to her hometown and home country, irrespective of whether she has established a life in the US or not. She determinedly prepares a poster advertising the show and will not give up despite the locals reaction (Nawazuddin Siddiqui is shown among the locals reacting to the poster), nor that Dia remains notorious in her hometown.

The songs – specifically, the title song “Aaja Nachle”:

“Aaja Nachle” is the best song of the film, and a spectacular performance, but it was unfortunately embroiled in a controversy before the film even released, around a lyric that was perceived to support caste discrimination (and fortunately later changed, but only after UP, Rajasthan and Haryvana announced they were banning the film). This poor PR around the film can’t have helped with creating a buzz around Madhuri’s return to the silver screen that the popularity of this song and her performance could have helped create.

The dance performance understandably goes down a storm with Shamli, but her speech that follows about heritage preservation is less well received. She announces they will put on a show in two months, to the amusement of the audience.

The show-within-the-film “Laila-Manju”, starts around 25 minutes before the end of the film and appears a delight.

These scenes are some of the most compelling in the film – especially captivating is the parts with Madhuri as the play’s narrator. If you have twenty minutes to spare, its well worth a (re)-watch:

Dia’s dynamic with Akshaye Khanna’s character MP Raja Uday Singh, shows they have good chemistry and their conversations lead to some of the most interesting dialogues in the film:

One short interaction between Uday and Dia’s daughter Radha serves a humorous, meta wink at the audience:

Radha: [to her mother, Dia] Can we go back to New York now?

Uday: That is a really good idea.

Radha: Sorry?

Uday: Well, I mean everybody else has gone and maybe so should you.

Radha: Who are you?

Uday: I’m the bad guy.

Dia’s first performance for Shamli since returning, of the title song, is followed by a direct interaction between the two of them. Despite the fight, he can’t help but compliment Madhuri, sorry, Dia, on her dancing skills. She purrs with confidence in response.

Uday: By the way, you dance very well.

Dia: I know.

Whilst the dynamic is left relatively unexplored, other than the aforementioned interactions, there is a truce made between them at the end of the film, which leave the audience to fill in the rest.

This happens, just as Ajanta is saved, when Dia is set to leave (the timing for which seems sudden) and is explained in the conversation below:

Uday: Don’t you think this city needs you?

Dia: This city needs itself. I just needed to come back once. I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Uday: I enjoyed fighting you

Dia: Me too

Uday: Don’t you think we should have another round?

Dia: What?

Uday: You liked it. I liked it. There must be something more to it?

Dia: I don’t like fighting without a reason

Radha hands her mother’s New York phone number to Uday (so she obviously approves of this “bad guy” in the end).

Where the film “went wrong” so to speak – and what could have been done to correct its course:

The set up of the film is bloated, detracts from getting into the plot, and wastes time that could be spent on showing Dia’s equations with Shamli’s residents in the current timeline:

Aaja Nachle opens with a dance scene – with Madhuri dancing (initially alone in the first part, and then joined by a class behind her) to a dated-sounding, English-language song (“Dance With Me”). We understand from this scene not only has Madhuri not lost any of her dancing ability, but she is playing a dance instructor in the film, presumably teaching somewhere in the West.

She receives an emergency call from India this is confirmed. Madhuri, as dance instructor Dia, takes the call. She learns her own inspiring dance teacher is dying and flies back to India with her daughter in tow. Her daughter asks her why they are going there when she swore never to go back. We cut to a flashback scene 11 years before in Shamli (cue classical dance steps to a Hindi song).

We are introduced to Steve, a photographer from National American Geographic shooting Indian dancers. They go for food and Dia orders extra spicy pakodas to his surprise in a light-hearted moment. Through a montage we follow their courtship and the disapproval of the locals. Her father slaps her on the way home and he and her mother announce they have arranged her marriage. With the blessing of her dance instructor and life teacher, Makarand, she elopes with Steve, leaving her family and home behind. Her betrothed is jilted and her parents leave town in shame.

It is narrated that Steve and Dia soon divorced, but that she was already pregnant, following which she embraced and found happiness in her role as a single mother.

Her American-born daughter asks: What are those cows doing in the middle of the road?

Madhuri: Welcome to India!

This is all rather cumbersome, and rather it would have been better to start the film with Dia’s return to Shamli, and for the reasons for her departure and the consequences they led to in terms of her reception back home, to be gradually revealed throughout the film.

The over-focus on supporting characters and set up of, essentially, a quite simple plot rather than focusing on Madhuri’s character, Dia, and her arc:

“Aaja Nachle” attempted to make space for character development for each of its key characters. In a film with a large supporting cast such as “Aaja Nachle”, this is beyond ambitious and becomes detrimental to the quality of the film. In a television series where characters each have space and time to develop individual and intertwining arcs over several hours, this is possible. But in a film, even if its a two and a half hour Hindi film, this becomes impossible to do and do with any great depth, meaning or authenticity.

The moments when the film focused on Dia’s character development, specifically her changing thoughts on the meaning of home, were some of the strongest and most engaging in the film, but were all too short, too infrequent and left under-explored. This seemed primarily due to time dedicated to the arcs of Imran, Anokhi, Farooque, Chaudhary, Najma, Mohan and Mr Chojar who all end up at different places than when they started the film. This should be evidence of a well-thought out plot, but in the light of the fact the film is a massy entertainer celebrating the return of Madhuri Dixit and throwing in dance songs for good measure, rather than an epic drama or character study, this distracts rather than attracts.

To compare with “Aaja Nachle” writer and producer Aditya Chopra’s release the following year, “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, similarly a film where dance plays an important role within the plot itself – in RNBDJ, unlike “Aaja Nachle” the focus remains squarely on the lead character, in this case Shah Rukh Khan’s, and carries the audience through his journey and development. His co-star in Anushka Sharma also gets a character arc to play, but beyond this, the focus is on these core characters, at the expense perhaps of supporting roles. It does, however, allow for one of SRK’s most entertaining and compelling performances hidden within a frothy masala film. A similar vehicle for Madhuri Dixit to demonstrate her abilities is lost within this film, peeking out at certain moments but drowning in the multitude of other characters taking attention from hers.

Interestingly, to take the comparison further – the key ingredients RNBDJ also had, beyond SRK’s star wattage, included the launch of a now major star in Anushka Sharma, and notably, the inclusion of a wonderful dance scene – an escapist celebration of Hindi film history, with cameos from five different heroines in Kajol, Preity Zinta, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta and Rani Mukherji (with SRK’s “Dil To Pagal Hai” co-star in Madhuri Dixit perhaps the notable omission). Such a scene with Madhuri alongside the three Khans and maybe Anil Kapoor and Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan would have likely been received rapturously. Or even shake it up further and have say, Sridevi, Juhi Chawla, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai?

Similarly, there are a confusing number of male suitors – it would have been more interesting to focus on one or, at most, two, in order to establish a meaningful dynamic with Dia:

It would have been preferable to either understand why marriage to Steve failed (and cast a real actor, not just a random white guy) and solve the bloated set up as a result, or ideally if the whole introductory section would be cut and have the film start with Dia’s return to Shamli after several years, and have her past be revealed as part of the gossip spread by Najma later on, there would be even less focus on the character of Steve who ultimately functions merely as a plot point to move the story along.

Alternatively, Mohan could become the main love interest and be an advert for the small town guy (and Indian) with simple values over the exotic foreigner, with an extra dash of patriotism never going amiss in terms of turning a Hindi film into a success, or alternatively (and preferably) have Mohan’s character merged with the Uday character (that is make Uday the jilted fiancé who has become the politician he has in the meantime), or cut Mohan’s character from the script entirely.

The problematic (if unoriginal) advice Dia gives to Anokhi in order to win over Imran is inconsistent with Dia’s characterisation as independently-minded, empowered woman and that any man in her life would be wanted and want her, rather than needed or require her to change who she is:

Dia gives romantic advice to Anokhi, who proclaims to unrequitedly love Imran, despite him treating her poorly and even threatening her at one point. In this context, the advice to smarten her appearance to impress him and to play hard to get are obvious and not exactly women-empowering.

It would have been better to see Dia advise Anokhi in gaining confidence and self-esteem, achieving in the show for its own merits and it might have been good to show a boy in Shamli with whom she has more in common and treats her better (in your Hollywood romantic comedy this would be the previously unnoticed best friend or older brother of the best friend). Or alternatively Imran could have grown up and apologised to Anokhi. Whilst he does mature later in the film, he rather shares his feelings but there is no real apology for his former behaviour towards her.

This is scene between Dia and Anokhi followed by Irrfan Khan’s character Farooque confirming himself as our bad guy as he attempts to scupper the attempts to put on the show, by attempting to influence Uday and then yells at his wife, Dia’s old friend Najma, about how his business interests may be hampered if Ajanta is saved. Her asks her to spread gossip in the town about Dia to increase the chances that the show is a failure.

Farooque: Artists are free spirited but she’s too free.

First there was that American.

Then she left her parents.

This presents a strange (if perhaps, human) contradiction between Dia’s free spiritedness and self-confidence in the face of social pressure and judgement of others, and the advice she gives to Anokhi.

Mohan, who continues to have unrequited feelings for Dia, meanwhile, speaks to Imran and tells him to confess his feelings to Anokhi before time runs out, with the obvious sub-text of his own feelings for Dia.

Farooque manages to bribe Chaudhary to switch his allegiances back from Ajanta and Dia. Chaudhary is confronted by Imran who stands up for Ajanta and says he has finally come to his senses. Anokhi fights to defend him from the attacks that follow. This is a turning point for Imran when he realises he prefers Anokhi’s good character to the strong men types he has followed before, and that he cares for her more than he had realised.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s bit-part character gets to reveal to the remainder of the cast and Dia that Farooque bribed Chaudhary to oppose Ajanta again, and that Najma was speaking ill or Dia, to her and Mohan’s shock and disbelief.

Dia: You were right. Who was I to be a martyr to this city’s cause?

When people said I’d leave for America after this show, they were right.

It’s unfair of me to leave you with this mess. If you stand by me Shamli will make life difficult for you. So whoever wants to can leave, I won’t hold it against you.

Her daughter is first to respond: I’m not leaving.

None of the cast choose to leave and in fact Najma arrives to apologise and step in in the role of Laila’s mother.

Dia’s return to Shamli is shown to have ultimately inspired her friend Najma to stand up to her husband and refuse to support gossip and social shaming:

Dia: You’ve always been fearless Dia, and I, afraid.

I spent my life married to a man who was married to his business.

But Dia, when I realised that, my fear vanished.

It’s been years since I danced. Or lived. Teach me to dance once again Dia. To live.

Madhuri’s reaction to the whole town turning out for the show is a delight. She is genuinely relieved. This moment where we see she does care about what the town thinks is well sold, but would have been more interested if not for this lapse earlier in her advice to Anokhi.

Spending more time on establishing truly what Dia’s principles were around needing (or not) the approval of others and reflecting this consistently, including in the advice given to Anokhi, and her relationship with Najma, would have strengthened the authenticity of the characters in the film and the audience identification with them.

The lack of youth icon factor for what is, essentially, a dance film a la ABCD 2 or Madhuri Dixit’s own “Dil To Pagal Hai”:

“Aaja Nachle” could have cast two youth icons as the characters of Imran and Anokhi, who then play the lead roles of Manju and Laila in the show performed by the residents of Shamli. Interestingly, looking at today’s cohort of big stars outside the Khans, three current big stars in Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone debuted in Hindi cinema just three weeks before “Aaja Nachle” released.

Another, Anushka Sharma, debuted a year later in another YRF production, and in 2007, the likes of Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra were starting in their careers and have since proved themselves more than capable of both the acting and dancing sides of being a Hindi film hero or heroine.

The dance film – the 90s hit “Dil To Pagal Hai” with Madhuri alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor, still retains a youthful energy and excitement even as it has dated with the passing of time and our three leads are no longer believable as characters within the same moment in life as Pooja, Rahul and Nisha.

A more recent dance film that exploded at the box office was the Shraddha Kapoor and Varun Dhawan starrer, last year’s “ABCD 2” (or “Anybody Can Dance 2”), did much to further cement both Shraddha and Varun’s status as among the youth icons of Hindi film today.

Lack of casting of top dancers alongside Madhuri:

Two of Madhuri’s most popular dance tracks in the last 15-20 years have been “Ghagra”, alongside Ranbir Kapoor in his 2013 hit film “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”, and “Dola Re Dola” in “Devdas” alongside Aishwarya Rai.

Part of the reason Madhuri’s cameo in the song “Ghagra” and her performance in “Dola Re Dola” were so celebrated was not just the wonderful choreography for either song, but that audiences got to see Dixit dance with a younger icon celebrated for their dance skills.

This further proves that by focusing on the authenticity of the supporting characters’ journeys as amateur dancers from beginners to performers, and casting accordingly, the opportunity to see Madhuri Dixit dance alongside a Shahid Kapoor or a Deepika Padukone was lost. These would have been sure to on-screen magic and meant that the film failed to capitalise on the combination of nostalgia for the grace, elegance and execution of Dixit in video songs from “Ek To Deen” right up to0 “Maar Dala” and their enthusiasm for new stars (such as for Kareena and Shahid in “Yeh Ishq Hai” and “Mauja Hi Mauja” from the (then) recently released hit, “Jab We Met”.

This is potent combination something that was either released later and contributed to the success of her stint on the small screen dancing show “Jhalak Dikhhla Jhaa”, or ended up as a retrospective proof of the potential success of this formula (only took a few years).

A failure to make full and appropriate use of a number of wonderful actors:

In addition to Madhuri herself, who acts with ease when she is given any meaty emotion to deal with in this film, Aaja Nachle discretely has some of India’s most acclaimed actors among the supporting cast – three National Award winners in fact in Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma.

Konkona, however, has never been a youth icon in the mould as described above, and could have been better cast however as say a reworked version of Najma as Dia’s younger sister married to an older man and Dia’s last family connection in Shamli. Konkona Sen Sharma’s award-winning acting skills alongside Irrfan Khan would have been a more interesting pairing and the gaining of confidence and reconciliation between Najma and Dia could have carried more weight.

As mentioned above, the film could have rather launched or promoted two youth icons as Laila and Manju (any from among star kids Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Imran Khan, who were all launched in 2007-2008, or newly established stars such as Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra).

It would also work better to recast Nawazuddin Siddiqui (admittedly at the time, he was not as celebrated an actor as he has become) as the rival politican to Akshaye Khanna’s MP Raja Uday Singh. Siddiqui would have made a lot of a role as the opportunistic and morally and ethically dubious Chaudhary Om Singh and it would have been great to see Madhuri Dixit interact with him more. The plot could have played up the rivalries between these two politicians further and swing back and forth on who both the audience and Dia identify with, and with Irrfan Khan’s character kept as the out and out bad guy (though redeemed at the end).

Conclusion:

Ultimately the film is far from a bad one. Actually, its enjoyable, entertaining fair, that has a feel-good, uplifting ending. It weaves in authentic messages and arguments about the meaning of home, community and tradition without, for the most part, contradicting a strong theme of women’s empowerment and supporting a woman’s right to make her own decisions and not to be judged for them as a man wouldn’t be.

Madhuri Dixit lights up the screen and continues to possess that movie star charisma – her years away from films seem to have done nothing to diminish that. Her dancing continues to be (even now, nine years after this was released), unparalleled in how much it is celebrated (justifiably). This film adds to Dixit’s canon that prove her ability and will sit among her legacy in cinema.

However, the film is not without flaws, and these largely contributed to the film’s underwhelming performance at the box office. The film focused far too much on making time for a large supporting cast, who, whilst containing a number of supremely talented actors, could have been more appropriately cast.

Despite Dixit’s dancing ability, an opportunity was missed to cast alongside her a number of young, popular actors, highly-skilled and celebrated for their dancing to satisfy audience curiosity of how they “match up” against her. That her most popular dance songs in recent years follow this pattern is not a coincidence.

The premise of “Aaja Nachle” in principle works. It had huge potential to work as a vehicle to relaunch Madhuri Dixit in Hindi cinema. Its failure to do so as much as it perhaps should however, therefore lie at the feet of the, at times, inappropriate use of the supporting cast, missed opportunities with the video songs, and particularly, too much distraction away from a focus on Madhuri Dixit’s character, and her own character’s development. If these key points had been addressed, there is no reason to believe “Aaja Nachle” couldn’t have been a hit.

Verdict: “Aaja Nachle” has enough going for it, and identifiable missteps that prove this film was NOT cursed, or destined to fail just because it happened to be heroine-oriented. Any such “curse” is not proven by “Aaja Nachle”.

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7 Comments

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