Curse of the comeback? Part three of five: Aishwarya Rai in “Jazbaa” (2015)

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

Last year’s “Jazbaa” saw Aishwarya Rai Bachchan return to the silver screen after five years, her preceding release being 2010’s “Guzaarish”.

Rai’s 1994 coronation as Miss World, followed by a high profile career with major hits such as “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”, “Dhoom 2”, “Devdas” and “Jodhaa Akbar”, a large array of endorsements, a handful of English-language films suggesting she might be the first B-Town star to “crossover” (whatever that means), and annual appearances at Cannes all contributed to the creation of Aishwarya Rai the star.

The addition of a filmi surname of the highest regard, becoming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and extending Mr. Bachchan’s film legacy into another generation created an additional level of glamour and mystique around Aishwarya.

That Rai’s return came after a five-year break was not initially intended, in fact she already signed up for Madhur Bhandarkar’s film “Heroine”, with a first look even released with her in the lead role. After she became pregnant with her daughter, her dates didn’t work and the film was released in 2012 with Kareena Kapoor in the lead instead.

The five-year break from films didn’t see Aishwarya completely away from the public eye however, and combined with the continued popularity of her films, she remained within public consciousness with a lot of hype and anticipation surrounding her return.

Given all of the above, 2015’s “Jazbaa” was an unusual choice for a “comeback” film for Aishwarya, a dark thriller not particularly similar to her biggest hits in any noticeable way, and so arguably was quite a brave and bold choice.

Despite this brave and bold choice, the film only garnered average reviews and average receipts in terms of return on investment or in comparison to the standout hits of 2015 (whether her ex- Salman Khan’s “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” or father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan’s “Piku”).

Therefore it is useful to break down what works and what doesn’t about the film, to figure out what contributed to this underwhelming response from critics and audiences.

The usual SPOILER alert – Jazbaa is a recommended watch (although an imperfect film), it has lots of interesting aspects to it, and so if you haven’t seen it, go watch and come back.

The trailer is below:

So what actually works about “Jazbaa”?:

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is re-established as a glamourous heroine, not despite, nor irrespective of, but including her real life (and reel life) motherhood as a source of glamour:

The opening scene and song of Jazbaa shows a svelte Aishwarya Rai Bachchan jogging and stretching around the city in a lycra suit as a message to all the haters who criticised her weight gain after her pregnancies (a natural and healthy phenomenon).

Rather in her return in Jazbaa, she represents the epitomy of health and fitness. She is then immediately cast in the role of a mother, shown waking her daughter for school.

On the school run, as Aishwarya’s character Anuradha discusses with her daughter the upcoming relay race, she mentions to her daughter she was also on her track team when she was at school, following on from her exercise we saw in the opening scene. Her daughter teases her:

Sanaya: Excuse me mom, this is a race. Not some case which you always win.

The image of Aishwarya Rai as “flawless” is emphasised successfully through the character she plays being portrayed similarly, specifically in her career:

Aishwarya, sorry, Anuradha of course wins the relay race. Whilst she is running her leg, this is when Sanaya disappears and it is this disappearance that drives the main thrust of the plot, when we discover she has been taken and Anuradha is forced into taking on a client under duress. Even during the call she receives from the kidnapper, he reminds us as the audience that Anuradha is such a top lawyer, in case we had forgotten.

Anuradha then heads to work, which, as has already been established, is as a top lawyer. An endearing moment when she takes off her flats to put on a pair of heals is hammered home excessively, with an unnecessary dialogue from her opposing counsel:

Prosecutor: I wish those high heels would help you win the case.

Irrespective of the high heels, Anuradha wins her case. Her client congratulates her and she corrects him by congratulating him instead. Through this we learn she takes pride in her success as a lawyer, but does not morally or ethically condone the actions of the people she is defending. She says she hopes to never meet him again when he offers his support if she ever needs it.

Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi were great choices to cast alongside Rai for this film, and if her own character were meatier and more complex, would have really allowed for their acting abilities to come through:

Irrfan Khan, for example, in contrast to Aishwarya Rai, is given more to do and able to show off more of his acting ability than Rai, even within the same (flawed) film, as his character Yohan is shown to make mistakes and has elements of grey to his character given the accusations of corruption against him.

In his introductory scene Yohan is compared with Rai’s father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan, famous for his ‘angry young man’ roles, and as a police officer, with Ajay Devgan’s Singham. These are iconic roles of historic and contemporary Hindi cinema.

An example of when Irrfan Khan does well as Yohan is when he and Anuradha break into the crime scene – and Yohan explains how the crime was committed.

Anuradha is able to assess the scene like an inspector, and already pieces together evidence that open the possibility that Niyaz didn’t commit the crime or that something is amiss. She builds a narrative of why the evidence against him might be there. All this seems quite sudden and lacks a little in plausibility.

Yohan later tells her to “stop trying to put Sherlock Homes out of a job”. His dark humour and wit is an enjoyable characterisation and well delivered throughout.

Anuradha then goes to a club and we have an awkwardly hemmed in video song and would have been better to leave this out or have a song more in keeping in mood with that of the film. Another awkward fit is the pseudo action scene as she confronts Benny, a confused junkie friend of Sia’s.

However, this improves when Yohan appears he apprehends Benny and threatens to arrest him for possession of narcotics, in turns into a humorous meta-commentary:

Benny: You’re not a cop anymore. I know my rights.

Yohan: Rights? Rights in INDIA?

[slaps him twice]

You watch too many Hollywood films

This is Bollywood.

He then plays good cop and offers to let him go if he spills on what happened. When this doesn’t work – he switches back to Singham-style policing. As a result, they get their intel – Benny mentions Sia changed after meeting a guy who became a bad influence.

The trial itself is probably the most compelling part of the film:

Anuradha’s case taken under duress is that of a convicted criminal who is appealing his conviction and sentencing, and who was sentenced to the death penalty in the initial trial. She is given a deadline of four days to have all charges dropped.

The case is to acquit Niyaz, the convicted murder and rapist of a 23-year-old art student called Sia. He has previous violent convictions and his DNA is all over the crime scene. We learn the inspector in charge of the case was Anuradha’s friend Yohan.

Loyalties to Anuradha are somewhat uncertain, as we as the audience understand her need to win the case, but naturally side with the victim and specifically with the victim’s mother, played by Shabana Azmi. There are a number of interesting conversations between the two of them, where perhaps the viewer may question Anuradha’s approach, if not her motives.

Throughout the trial, the questioning of witnesses and closing statements allow for discussion of issues around violence against women that are ripe topics for all kinds of forms of art and media – and most recently very successfully addressed by Rai Bachchan’s father-in-law in the movie “Pink”.

Anuradha is shown in court to be creating reasonable doubt by questioning the locksmith who couldn’t break into the apartment and the doctor who conducted the autopsy who both indicate that Sia must have known her attacker.

She follows by putting Garima on the stand, where her line of questioning is challenged.

She explains:

Anuradha: My motive was to draw the court’s attention to the fact that when girls in a broken family feel lonely they tread down the wrong path in search of love and support.

Garima: Sia wasn’t like that!

Anuradha: Then how was she Garima-ji?

Garima: My daughter was the most brilliant student of the JJ School of Arts.

Anuradha: But all the artwork in her studio is mostly incomplete.

Was there a void in her life too?

Garima: There’s a void in everyone’s life.

No one gets a complete world, Advocate Verma.

Anuradha: Can you tell us, how your daughter filled the void in her life?

Garima: Like most youngsters do these days, with their friends.

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This case is about Sia’s murder, not her personal life.

Anuradha: Your Honour, given the conditions under which Sia was murdered, her lifestyle had a big role to play in it.

Judge: Please continue.

Anuradha: Thank you, Your Honour.

[to Garima] Did your daughter have friends?

Gaurima: Who doesn’t? She had dozens of friends.

Anuradha: Boyfriends?

Gaurima: Yes.

She had male friends as well.

Anuradha: How was Sia’s relationship with her boyfriend?

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This is just an attempt to humiliate Sia.

Anuradha: I disagree Your Honour.

To find the real murderer it is important to find out who Sia’s friends were, what they did, who she hung out with, and how she partied, if she did.

This line of questioning where the relevance of a woman’s personal life choices to seeking justice after she has suffered a crime (and in this case, is not even able to either defend her choices, or face her attacker), is picked up again in scene shortly afterwards, and dealt with even more explicitly.

Anuradha: Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

I’ll repeat my question.

Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

Garima-ji, I hope you understand what I’m trying to get at.

Garima stands up for her daughter and outwardly criticises Anuradha’s approach and challenges the underlying judgement and shame. She reminds both the court and the audience that Sia is the victim, not the accused.

Garima:  I understand clearly what you’re trying to say.

You want to prove that my daughter was a loose woman.

On what basis?

Because she had a few male friends?

Advocate Verma, my daughter was clever, beautiful, emotional.

Men would hover around her.

So what?

Is that a crime?

Are you one of those people that think that it’s always the woman’s fault?

People who blame the girl and not the rapist after she’s been raped.

They blame her dress sense.

They blame her independent thinking.

They blame the very fact that she’s a girl.

Anuradha: Garima-ji, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings.

The following response clarifies their two positions – Garima as a traumatised mother who can’t get over her daughter’s murder, and Anuradha as a mother winning her case at any cost to protect her daughter who’s been kidnapped. There is a clear parallel between the two of them in this moment, but it questions Anuradha’s potential hypocrisy for victimising Sia further to save her own daughter.

Garima: No, Advocate Verma.

You are not sorry.

Right now you’re just a lawyer who wants to win her case at any cost.

If you had any humanity, or sympathy, then you would have understood my pain.

I dream about my daughter every night, where she says, “Mama, save me, I want to live. Help me Mama”.

Back when she was a kid, even a small hiccup would give me sleepless nights.

Imagine my condition when her scream resonates in my ears every night.

Prosecutor: Your Honour, I seriously object to this kind of questioning.

Anuradha: My questions are relevant Your Honour.

Judge: Proceed.

Anuradha: Did you know that your daughter took drugs?

Garima: Yes.

Anuradha continues by framing this information to support her case for reasonable doubt.

Anuradha: Your honour, please note, Sia was a young girl.

She lived alone.

She had a lot of male friends and she took drugs.

And that night, the lock of Sia’s apartment was impossible to pick from the outside. So obviously, Sia opened it from the inside.

And Sia’s killer who came into her apartment that night must have been one of Sia’s male friends who Sia invited over herself.

And not some petty thief who went there to steal money for his mother’s medicine.

That will be all Your Honour.

A recess is called and Garima approaches Anuradha outside of the courtroom. Rather than relate Anuradha to herself, she draws a parallel between Anuradha and Niyaz, an extreme position perhaps but it emphasises the power of shaming, and of the perverting of justice to blame the victim:

Garima: Miss Verma, what Niyaz did to my daughter was behind closed doors.

You just did that to her character in the open.

What’s the difference between you and Niyaz?

Nothing.

Aishwarya’s character is given an traumatic background within the film, leading to a conversation with Irrfan’s character that touches on issues such as gender selective abortion and boy child preference:

An interesting dialogue follows Anuradha is calmer after the meetup to drop off Sanaya’s medication. This plotline as such does a better job of ringing true (and allows Aishwarya to give a more convincing performance and flesh out her character a little more):

Anuradha: I almost lost Sanaya once before

I got pregnant.

And my husband found out it was a girl.

He said

“we can have a daughter later”

First I want a son.

Even my in-laws wanted a son.

I was so alone.

I had loved him you know.

I even stopped practicing law for his sake.

Settled down in America.

It was our child.

And he said “abort it”

Kill my daughter.

My Sanaya.

A man becomes a father after the child is born.

But a woman becomes a mother from the time the child starts developing in her womb.

A man can say “abort the child”

But not a mother

I fled from those murderers.

Away from the world that had no place for my child.

I almost lost her once, I can’t lose her again.

This interesting background is dropped however, and we learn nothing of how Anuradha went from divorced single mother returning to India after abandoning her career upon her husband’s request, to the hotshot superstar defence lawyer who the poor can’t afford and the press can’t stop profiling.

Anuradha Verma is a more engaging character at the points she is resourceful – either in her line of questioning or when she is attacked herself:

When Anuradha returns home after discovering about the involvement of the local politician Mahesh Maklai, he and his goons are waiting for her. They threaten her and tie her up, as he insists his son has “nothing to do with this case”. He then explains that Sam came home high one morning, with Sia’s body in his car.

They both assumed he had killed her in a fugue state, whereas Anuradha still insists at this point that Sam is the murderer. He explains that it doesn’t matter whether Sam is the murderer or not (where is the victim in all this you wonder) – but rather that his reputation is protected so he goes on to win the upcoming elections.

This plot point is meaty and not fully exploited, a great actor and performance for the role of Mahesh Maklai, and more time to flesh out his character to deliver this would help.

Whilst a morally grey Anuradha suddenly becoming a passionate defender of justice in the face of this new level of acceptance of immorality would be appropriate here, but neither does a flawed nor right on Anuradha seem to object much at all. “Please don’t do this” is her only refrain, but Aishwarya is also inconveniently tied up here, leaving her no option to use body language in her performance.

They plan to burn the place down with her in it – upping the stakes to the highest point so far in the film as Anuradha’s life is in immediate danger. Here she is somewhat entreatingly resourceful as she slides over to the nearest table and kicks as she is able, smashing a glass onto the ground – a piece of which she will be able to use to set herself free. She then helps the maid, checks she’s OK and switches off the gas.

The prosecutor presents his final arguments and is followed by Anuradha whose argument consists of admitting that Niyaz could be the murderer but creating reasonable doubt by presenting Sam as an alternative suspect. We haven’t seen any of this evidence actually presented in court until this point so this seems odd.

She does however, following Annalise Keating’s steps on How to Get Away with Murder (the sexy, soapy high drama ABC show without Priyanka Chopra):

The ending is relatively well executed – with Shabana Azmi standing out and most threads are tied up – and where this isn’t done neatly, it appears to be intentional:

We are shown, a final version of events where Niyaz does indeed rape and murder Sia, whilst Sam has passed out due to his drugged up state, and Niyaz puts the knife he used as the murder weapon in Sam’s hand before he escapes.

Whilst Anuradha is challenged for presenting these assumptions only at this point of the case, with no evidence, her response is to point to the lack of a murder weapon, and insist it is the prosecution’s job to prove the client guilty. Anuradha is well sold here as a competent lawyer. She points at the lack of equal justice provided to the son of a rich man with connections (Sam), and a drug dealer (Niyaz) as a genuine double standard.

At this point when we know Niyaz is the killer – our loyalties to this argument are somewhat divided. Anuradha, upon questioning by the prosecution, presents a motive for Sam – jealousy on finding Niyaz and Sia in a “compromising position” whilst he attempted to rape her. Sam arrives at the court just in time to act as a witness confirming he was there at the time of her murder.

He says he was there at the time of the murder but that she was already dead when he came to. We are shown a flashback of this happening, as well as him and his father disposing of the body.

Niyaz is granted bail (but not acquitted? Is he still charged? Is the case reopen? Is this even acceptable as a result for the kidnapper? – all unclear), and Mahesh and Sam are charged with the crimes Sam has just admitted to.

Sam appears in court as a result of Anuradha’s defending of the criminal Abbas at the beginning of the film, who Mahesh Miklai made the mistake of trusting as a hired goon to take on his dirty work of hiding Sam. Whether this criminal’s honour code is believable or not is probably questionable but adds an ambiguity that would have been better to run throughout the film more generally.

Niyaz is run over and killed on his release from prison.

Later Anuradha visits Garima to apologise for her efforts in setting Niyaz free.

She soon realises her involvement in the kidnapping, followed by an admission by Garima that she has vengefully murdered Niyaz.

Anuradha:

Why did you want Sia’s murderer acquitted?

We see Garima has paid off a goon, and we see that Niyaz is still alive but tied up. Garima walks in with an intense, vengeful look:

Garima:

You’ve no clue

About the things I had to do to get you out.

I did things to an innocent girl

Which a mother can never imagine.

You will die now.

A death you can’t even imagine.

Do you know why Ravan is burnt every year on Dusshera?

To remind everyone of Ravan’s crimes.

There’s just one punishment for physically abusing a girl

He’s burnt to death.

Niyaz: [sniffs his shirt] Petrol!

Garima: Can you imagine a death compared to which even the death penalty looks like mercy?

Niyaz screams.

Garima: This is how my daughter screamed as well.

I can still hear her screams.

She doesn’t let me sleep at night.

Echoes in my ear.

Niyaz pathetically screams “forgive me!” – as though Garima is in the mood for forgiving the rape and murder of her daughter.

Garima: Set my nerves on fire. It pierces my soul. My daughter’s scream can only be subdued by your screams Niyaz.

Garima pulls out a lighter and we see her red eyes as she watches the flames surround Niyaz. She is finding a perverse comfort in personally enacting this punishment. We see a single tear as she feels vindicated for her earlier actions as a kidnapper, as she has got the pay off she wanted so badly.

We are back to the scene with Anuradha and Garima explains how she burnt Niyaz alive.

Garima: This could be his only punishment to serve justice to my daughter

This is an interesting reference to justice in what seems like vengeance

You’re a mother too. I hope you understand.

Anuradha: No

I don’t understand.

What gave you the right to kidnap my daughter?

In order to get justice for your daughter?

Garima: Believe me, I took care of Sanaya like my Sia.

Yet I am guilty for all the trauma she went through

Even if I am sentenced to death

For giving Niyaz what he deserved

Then I will have no regrets.

Garima is then arresting for kidnapping and murder. Anuradha’s response is to enquire if they have an arrest warrant, and when she’s questioned why she’s even asking she declares that its because Garima is her client. This is a dramatic turn of events from seconds earlier when she insists she didn’t and couldn’t understand Garima’s motivations. The two finally connect through pain as mothers.

What would have made the film stronger – and more likely to succeed:

The set up to fail – “flawlessness” as an ideal for both on-screen heroine and off-screen persona is somewhat problematic, and leaves little scope for creating either a relatable character, or adding any real sense of moral ambiguity or bring out dark themes as the film appears otherwise to be trying to do:

The practically-perfect-in-every-way character played by Aishwarya, Anuradha Verma, is better compared with Mary Poppins, which, without the singing and the flying umbrella, makes for a relatively dull and largely unengaging character for her to play.

The fact she defends the worst criminals is explained by “the innocent can’t afford my fees”. That means, this is only because she is such an accomplished lawyer. She tuts and shakes her head at her friend Yohan for his suspension caused by his low level corruption, and doesn’t accept his excuse that the whole system is corrupt. She is therefore also established as a principled individual, and morally and ethically incorruptible.

Aishwarya is the perfect doting mother, perfect lawyer who never loses a case even when all the evidence is against her, is smart, kind, and of course, given this is a former Miss World, stunningly beautiful.

The mother / daughter kidnapping angle, in fact, seems intended to show Aishwarya as being a “serious” dramatic actress able to emote, present her as the super mother willing to do anything for her child (yes, Aishwarya just as much as Anuradha), and to ensure that Anuradha remains a likeable character as the audience understands this is only under the most extreme duress that she is representing such a client.

I would suggest cutting this whole aspect of the script, and recreating Anuradha as a fabulous lawyer, but bitter woman who gleefully takes on the most difficult cases to show off how good she is, and who expresses little remorse for defending the worst criminals in the process. She could have a mysterious past that could relate to a long-term missing daughter that might develop later on, but would create a credibility that she would be able to focus on the case rather than being distracted by concerns around her daughter’s whereabouts and safety.

Anuradha goes to meet Niyaz in prison for the first time – the combination of fear and disdain for him as a convicted murder and rapist is actually quite convincingly shown by Aishwarya through an understated reaction and her famously expressive eyes. We actually see some genuine vulnerability here and it allows for Aishwarya to give a more complex and interesting performance:

Niyaz states: These beautiful faces don’t win cases.

Mean lawyers like you do. Understood, old man?

Anuradha: [stands up] I will make sure you win. Trust me!

He reacts by trying to strangle her.

She then causes a scene in the middle of the road creating a traffic jam as she confronts the police who continue to follow her. She argues with them, not making much sense by saying her daughter is back safe but at the same time that the police can do nothing to apprehend the kidnapper. She then recklessly pulls the car keys out their car and throws them away before driving off.

Niyaz asks for her to return to meet him, and is shown reading clippings which identify Anuradha as one of the “highest paid lawyers”. (Thanks for the reminder, really makes her relatable to the common man or woman).

Anuradha tells Niyaz his narrative of what happened and how he is innocent, trying to craft a feasible story. She has written up the statement already and just needs him to sign it.

When Niyaz hears this – he laughs incredulously and declares: You’re good! You’re good! Very good. The newspapers are right about you.

Anuradha even has time to help her friend Yohan – she has posted his bail before he has even been arrested on the corruption charges.

At one point in the film, Niyaz compliments Anuradha on her legal approach, and jokes about Garima. Anuradha slaps him in response and says “you have no idea what a mother has to go through!”. This would be more interesting if it came without all the backstory of her character defending him only under duress, her daughter’s kidnapping and super mother status that has already been hammered down our throats.

It would potentially serve as a clue to understanding her as a more complex character, her motivations for taking on the case and as a sign of her internal struggles whilst doing so. Her next line, in case we had forgotten, is “[y]our case is being defended by a mother. Not a lawyer. Understand?”.

Overall to rework Aishwarya’s character as a morally dubious lawyer who represents “bad guys” and tries to get them off, but finds this her toughest case yet, would have been a more compelling premise.

Jazbaa is ultimately two films in one and that these two parts don’t really fit together:

Specifically those two parts consist of –

  • A drama/thriller showing from the perspective of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and the trauma she goes through
  • A thriller/mystery about a murder of a young woman from the perspective of the defence lawyer trying to win an appeal

We see this for example in a scene where Anuradha is rung by the kidnapper and warned that Sanaya is seriously unwell. She insists she is taken to the hospital to receive treatment. Instead the kidnapper agrees for a drop off of medications at a to be agreed point. In exchange for the medications, the kidnapper leaves a box with Sanaya’s clothes. We hear Sanaya call out in the distance as her head pops out of the car. Anuradha’s overdramatic (if perhaps believable within the plot) reaction and slow-mo running towards her as the car drives away.

Why Anuradha, if such a smart and successful lawyer, investigator and detective, as well as a supermom, and brave in the face of danger, would in this scenario focus her attention to the point of minimal distraction on getting a convicted murder released rather than figuring out who kidnapper her daughter in the first place and/or her daughter’s whereabouts is never really addressed and as such this plot doesn’t convince.

The screaming, tears and breakdown that follows don’t fit with the same characterisation of her character as a professional to a fault, poised under the most extreme pressure and leaves the taste as a result of a bizarre and unintended double role (which might have been a more interesting twist in fact!)

Only after hearing her screaming has the (detective!) Inspector Yohan realised Sanaya is not with her grandmother and even is made to look surprised when Anuradha says she has been kidnapped after all. In this scene however, Irrfan’s character comes across as believable but Aishwarya’s arc doesn’t add up.

She has just seen her daughter, alive and despite being told she was unwell (seemingly in good health), she is screaming “my Sanaya is gone” repeatedly, as though resigned to the fact her child is dead or going to die. A fighting mother as she is supposed to be portrayed would be fighting until the last second and chance, surely?

Yohan immediately puts his detective skills to work not on if Niyaz is guilty, but on who might be his benefactor and therefore have Sanaya. Anuradha focuses on the case and breaking into Sia’s computer is found by Sia’s mother. It instantly rubs off as strange that she seems to accept this quite quickly.

She remains relatively composed in a scene afterwards at the courthouse, but at least shows some signs of struggling to deal with her daughter’s kidnapping.

Interestingly, this is after we have seen Anuradha do something that can be considered morally or ethically dubious and doesn’t fit with her upstanding portrayal otherwise. This is, specifically, when Yohan introduces Anuradha to Sia’s mother Garima as the sister of a victim, and a writer “who wants to portray the pain of those who’ve suffered”.

Later at the courthouse, Garima is shown as concerned that Niyaz’s new lawyer may impact the outcome. She’s informed by the prosecutor that the defence lawyer is a woman and then spots Anuradha. She has been exposed. The tension here would have been more compelling here however if our sympathies fully lied with Gaurima rather than our heroine.

Anuradha: I had no intention of lying to you.

I was about to tell you the truth.

Garima: Tell me what?

That you met me in order to save my daughter’s murderer?

That you won my trust?

That you used me?!

Anuradha: I didn’t use anyone.

I was only doing my job.

Garima: Then why did you lie?

Maybe that pain in your eyes was fake too.

That deceived me.

Anuradha: My pain doesn’t need your certificate of authenticity, Garima-ji.

Nor does your pain need my sympathy.

Everyone has their own hell and everyone has to face it alone.

Garima: Just imagine, if your daughter had been through what my daughter did?

Would you still defend that rapist?

Fight for him?

Prosecutor: Advocate Verma, your firm defends criminals like Abbas.

I can understand that.

But this scum?

[….]

Garima: Miss. Verma, I’m not fighting for my daughter alone, but for all the daughters whose mothers are still waiting for justice.

The scenes in the hospital and all scenes with Sia’s boyfriend Sam are unfortunately melodramatic and seem yet another genre – a kitschy horror flick:

Yohan and Anuradha figure out that Sia’s ex-boyfriend was a son of rich man who became addicted to drugs, but Sam has an alibi as he was in hospital at the time of the murder. Sam is interviewed but only partially lucid, as he hallunicates and briefly even attacks Anu before self-harming. They leave and on the way back it is revealed that during the attack Sam left a note with Anuradha “I know who killed Sia” and they head straight back to the hospital.

They get back in by setting off the fire alarm (a dangerous and dubious task that would be again, more interesting if not under duress). Sam is shown as completely mentally unstable and of no use to support the case further. This diverts as such into another type of story altogether – a hammed-up, cheap horror flick with 2-D “crazy” baddies intended to shock and scare. Its unoriginal, out-of-place as does a disservice to the experienced and acclaimed actors in the film (Aishwarya, Irrfan and Shabana).

I would cut these scenes entirely – or if really needed for plot purposes, I would rewrite them and recast the actor playing Sam or give him entirely different direction.

Too much effort and time is spent on trying to demonstrate Aishwarya’s acting skills – she has already had a long and successful career, there shouldn’t be a need to so firmly re-establish this:

Was this film somehow trying to prove Aishwarya Rai can act? This seems odd given her career has seen her not just celebrated for her stunning beauty and commercial success but also that she had credibility as an actress with talent (this combination contributing to her being offered English-language and gaining a higher-profile in the West).

Niyaz’s wife Nazia is next to take to the stand. She reveals that Niyaz did in fact know Sia, as he was her drug dealer, unravelling the defence Anuradha has just created. She also testifies that he said he was going to Sia’s on the night of the murder to collect payment.

Anuradha confronts her client on why he hadn’t told her this in advance. He says that when he went to collect the money that night she was already dead. Anuradha has difficulty believing him and then he tells a story of raping and killing Sia.

Anuradha is played as horrified in her reaction – as though she had been genuinely defending an innocent client and that we are to believe that to convince her to defend an innocent client her daughter would have had to have been kidnapped. This is another point where the logic of the plot doesn’t add up and lacks plausibility, detracting from our understanding of the characters and interest in the plot’s development. But it gives Aishwarya the chance to show she can “react” as well as act.

Yohan discovers that Niya’s wife Nazia is in for a big inheritance pay-out if Niyaz receives the death penalty.

Anuradha signs for a package at the court – it is a fake “hand” as a warning of what will happen to Sanaya should she lose the case. This is not the most convincing or necessary plot point – a more subtle revelation or clue about her daughter’s whereabouts would have been more suspenseful and intriguing at this point in the story.

Anuradha and Yohan find photos of Sam at Sia’s funeral – proving he hadn’t already been admitted to hospital at the time of her murder. They also soon find out he’s been discharged, followed by the revelation he is the son of the local politician Mahesh Maklai we have seen has been keeping track of the case.

Conclusion:

Jazbaa actually has a lot going for it. A strong core cast of Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi. A relatively unique style and murky ethical territory with the lead character defending a convicted murder and rapist. Space to discuss victim blaming, violence against women, boy child preference and a number of other social issues from all angles within the context of an entertaining film.

Yet somehow Jazbaa fails to live up to expectations. It struggles as its so evident what this film could have been. To relate to other films in style and execution, it could have been a unique heroine-oriented comeback with the thrill and anti-heroinism of a “Kahaani”, the mystique and investigation of a “Talaash” and the social message courtroom drama of a “Pink”. Whilst far from a bad film, however, “Jazbaa” doesn’t stand up to these films for quality or likely longevity in impact.

An obvious fix lies in making the lead less “flawless” and peppering down the need for overdramatic scenes by removing the duress of her child being kidnapped for the reason Anuradha takes on the case.

This is well encapsulated in the end of the film, as Anuradha has won the case (kind of?).

Sanaya is returned, literally in a suitcase, and in a highly dramatized scene, as the child appears to be dead. We see first Yohan’s increasingly concerned reaction, as he can’t seem to find a pulse, followed by Anuradha’s arrival on the scene.

Anuradha’s extroverted denial of this seemingly morbid reality is poorly matched with her slow-motion running and a searing background score. Again this part of the scene just seems to be there to a) give Aishwarya a scene where she can show utter devastation (at this point in the film we’ve seen this enough times for it to lose impact), and b) all for another sudden plot twist and “feel good” moment as Sanaya turns out to be alive after all.

If any reunion scene between mother and child had come after Anuradha had given up hope of her return (and turned into a cynical lawyer defending rapists and murderers for big fees), this would have had a greater impact and allowed Aishwarya to show more of a character arc through signs of this grieving mother layered underneath a highly-competent, manipulative and successful lawyer.

It would allow for a “redemption” of sorts of her character that would make her more palatable to the audience but also serve as a statement on the inherently flawed nature of all human beings. Instead we have the practically-perfect-in-every-way, i-woke-up-like-this, utterly flawless Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the super lawyer, super heroine and of course, super mother.

The closing scene sees Anuradha visit Yohan to thank him for his help. She tells him she’s appealed his case (the bribery case we hear about in the beginning of the film), but he says he prefers his new life and has little interest in returning to life as a cop. They joke about Sanaya being with her grandmother (as this was also the excuse used when she had to hide the kidnapping). She departs with a promise to see one another again soon. They both seem lighter, with much less stress and concerns, particularly Yohan. This would have worked well as a nice prologue if they had both actually softened from their cynical positions through their experience. But as Anuradha was relatively principled throughout, and fighting for her child as the super mother she was shown to be, this doesn’t quite ring true.

There is actually an important message within this film, and one that needs special attention given just before the film ends in order to clarify this when we are shown a statement on rape in India (which unfortunately could also apply similarly in many other countries).

“There are more than 90 rape cases in India every day.

Every 22 minutes a woman gets raped

Only 1 out of every 10 cases is reported

From the ones reported barely 25% get convicted”

Jazbaa misses its opportunity to convey this message by “showing not telling”.

Verdict:

Despite its flaws, they are relatively interconnected, forseable, and if someone had the foresight, could have been fixable. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan remains a lucrative star, whilst not hugely profitable, the film didn’t do poorly, nor did Sarbjit which followed. A supporting role in Diwali-release “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” has revitalised Aishwarya Rai’s glamour quotient a fewfold and it suggests that with the right premise, script and delivery, she is far from destined to fail in her “comeback”, heroine-oriented or not. There is not enough evidence in the case of “Jazbaa” to prove a curse against heroine-oriented comebacks. “Jazbaa” is not Rai’s best performance, and she could have made a better comeback still, but all was not lost.

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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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Diwali 5-part special: “The Curse of the Comeback”

This Diwali “Women in Bollywood” celebrates with a five-part special, discussing the subject of heroine-oriented comebacks, that is, after actresses have taken some time away from the big screen and attempt a successful return.

As these breaks have typically, although not exclusively, coincided with developments in the personal lives of the heroines in question, the success or failure of these films have a wider implication in terms of a popular culture representation of changing societal expectations and acceptance of a woman’s continued career ambitions after marriage and childbirth, as well as opinions (changing or otherwise) on the compatibility of a maturing woman and the escapist glamour of commercial cinema.

That many of the films that witness an actress’ return to cinema after a multi-year break are heroine-oriented, this adds an extra level of relevance within the scope of this blog.

Notably, the actress Kajol’s two “comebacks” saw her star alongside  Aamir Khan in 2006’s “Fanaa”, and her long-term co-star Shah Rukh Khan in 2015’s “Dilwale”. Her roles were prominent but responsibility for the box office draw was shared with a major hero who had led a recent blockbuster hit.

This 5-part series will look rather at cases where the box office draw was left in the hands of a heroine absent from Hindi films for several years, and will discuss in each case – what worked, what didn’t and what could have been changed in terms of increasing the film’s success and positive reception.

Through these 5 films, released all in the last 10 years and showcasing a major heroine, a verdict will be reached on the premise of whether a heroine-oriented comeback is “cursed” or doomed to fail.

Curious?:

Five upcoming heroine-oriented movies to look out for!

So what are some of the yet-to-be-released flicks that this blog will update on and then discuss after release? Here are 5 upcoming heroine-oriented movies to make sure you look out for.

  1. Simran  – a 2017 release starring 100-crore heroine Kangana Ranaut

Due to the casting of Kangana, this film is bound to gain a lot of attention. There is less confirmed information available so far however about this movie than Kangana’s other release “Rangoon”.

It is understood that Kangana plays an NRI, and that her character is not actually named Simran (leading to the question – who is Simran?) but rather Praful Patel. Kangana is said to be playing a “negative character”. Is this an unusual portrayal of an anti-heroine lead?

Speculation abounds that Praful is based on real life bank robber Sandeep Kaur, dubbed the “Bombshell Bandit” after successfully robbing three banks across the US. Her full story can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32481834

It sounds a fascinating source to inspire a movie that’s for sure.

What we do have in terms of concrete information however is that the film is directed by Hansal Mehta, a National Film Award winner whose most recent release was “Aligarh”. A first look of Kangana in “Simran” has been released.

kangana-in-simran

2. “Noor” starring Sonakshi Sinha –

Noor sees Sonakshi Sinha team up with debut director Sunhil Sippy, her second heroine-oriented film after last month’s “Akira”. Unlike “Akira” – which saw Sonakshi as the action heroine spending most of the movie “kicking ass”, “Noor” appears to belong to the genre I’m dubbing “Lipstick Cinema” – as an entertainment-oriented portrayal of a lipstick feminist ideology. Such films have women as protagonists, and are generally designed for a female audience but embrace traditional markers of über-femininity. There are relatively few such films that have released in Bollywood, with the Sonam Kapoor-starrers “Aisha” and “Khoobsurat” springing to mind as recent examples.

The film is an adaptation of the book “Karachi, You’re Killing Me!” written by Pakistani journalist Saba Imtiaz and is due to release in April of next year.

With the book set in Karachi but relocated to Mumbai for the movie – there was some speculation that the character will remain Pakistani, which would have been an interesting retention given the paucity of Pakistani female characters in Hindi films (Preity Zinta in Veer Zaara and the young Munna [or “Shahida”] in Bajrangi Bhaijaan spring to mind), but Sinha has recently denied this, insisting this remains an Indian adaptation of a Pakistani book.

Poster for Noor.jpg

A poster already released (above) as has a teaser (below)

3. Phillauri – a film with Anushka Sharma as the lead –

Anushka Sharma’s latest home production following her intial producing credit for NH10 (another film due its own post), Phillauri is also a step away from the thriller genre of NH10, reportedly a much lighter affair comfortably described as a romantic comedy.

It has been speculated that Anushka is either playing a ghost or a witch – either option an unusual choice for your lead character!

First look is below

anushka-sharma-in-phillauri

Phillauri releases in March of next year and sees Punjabi music star and actor Diljit Donsanjh (who recently debuted in Bollywood with “Udta Punjab”) alongside Anushka, and was shot in the village of Phillaur and the city of Patiala, both in Punjab state, and is directed by newcomer Anshai Lal.

  1. Kahaani 2 – with of course, Vidya Balan

Due to release just next month, Vidya Balan’s “Kahaani 2” is a sequel to 2012’s superhit “Kahaani” (a film that warrants its own separate post soon).

Scheduled to release on the 25th November, Kahaani 2 goes up against SRK and Alia Bhatt’s “Dear Zindagi” at the box office in what is set to be the latest in a number of release date clashes between highly-hyped films.

However, if Kahaani 2 gets good word of mouth, combined with the regard the first film is still held in and Vidya’s acting chops, it should be able to overcome the impact of the release date clash.

Kahaani 2 appears to be set once again in Kolkata, which fans of Kahaani will remember, played a significant role in the movie, as a pseudo-character in of itself. Balan returns as assassin Vidya Bagchi, and Arjun Rampal joins the cast in a major role. Kahaani 2 sees Sujoy Ghosh return to directing for the first time since Kahaani.

The trailer is expected to come out alongside Ajay Devgan’s “Shivaay” which releases on the 28th October.

A still from the movie is below:

kahaani-2-still

5. Veere di Wedding – an ensemble piece with Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor

This is a movie I am particularly looking forward to for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a heroine-oriented film with two major stars – with Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor both acting in Veere di Wedding. To say this is not a common occurrence is beyond an understatement. If the film is a success and both actresses are credited for it, perhaps it could even start a trend that would see the lead actresses of Bollywood on screen together with greater frequency.

Equally, by featuring Kareena Kapoor in a lead role, it also shows her determination to remain in the industry despite family tradition, naysayers and the rules of Bollywood demanding she step out of the limelight now she’s married, over 35 and soon to be a mother. Whilst evidently benefitting from the privilege of the ultimate movie star last name, this refusal to “bow out gracefully” can break barriers for other women after her.

So what do we actually know about the movie itself? Well we know it is about a group of four friends at one of their weddings – the bride played by Kareena. The other three women are played by Sonam, Swara Bhaskar (previously in the Tanu Weds Manu movies, Raanjhanaa and Prem Ratan Dan Payo) and Shikha Tilsania (Wake Up Sid). It sees Sonam team up again with Khoobsurat direct Shakshanka Ghosh. VDW has been described as a “feel-good film” about an “emotional bond between friends”. Producer Rhea Kapoor (Sonam’s sister) has revealed it will shoot primarily in Delhi, with some overseas locations also being explored.

Beyond this – more is yet to be revealed, including the release date. From the information we have so far though, it appears to also fit into the “lipstick cinema” category, and if it plays up on the comedy aspect, I would not be surprised if it is being pitched as Bollywood’s answer to “Bridesmaids”.

kareena-and-sonam

Look – heroines can get along!

PLUS – a bonus three other heroine-oriented films which have been announced but for which there is still very limited information:-

  • Begum Jaan – another Vidya Balan movie releasing early next year. Allegedly Vidya plays a brothel’s madam during partition (already sounds amazing). Hopefully this will follow on from success with Kahaani 2.
  • Rani Mukherjee is set to make her return to the silver screen by playing the lead in a YRF biopic, directed by Siddarth Malhotra (not the actor, but rather the director of the Kajol/Kareena Kapoor/Arjun Rampal film “We Are Family”). Rumour mill is rife that this is a film turned down by Priyanka Chopra, and as PC was recently linked to a biopic of Kalpana Chawla, its possible this is the same film. Chawla, an Indian American astronaut, and the first Indian woman in space, lost her life aged only 40 (only two years older than Rani) in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
  • As yet unnamed heroine-oriented film starring Kajol – very little detail on this upcoming movie, reportedly Kajol’s next, with her as the protagonist in a movie starring a mother and son, it is produced by her husband Ajay Devgan’s production house but he does not star in the movie.

Enjoyed this post?

  • Check out “Queen” – which discuss Simran star Kangana Ranaut’s 2014 release, and why the film is groundbreaking and how it subverts expectations
  • Read about another powerhouse performance, Sonam Kapoor’s best to date, in “Neerja” and how the film presents the protagonist as a number of different archetypes
  • Learn what this blog is all about in “Introducing ‘Women in Bollywood‘”

Neerja (2016)

I chose to start this blog with a piece on the movie “Neerja”. Why?

Well, Neerja is box office gold in 2016, one of the biggest movies released and the highest grossing with a female protagonist. It sees India’s “number 1 fashionista”, the star kid Sonam Kapoor, in a totally new avatar, producing almost certainly her finest performance to date. It received rave reviews and most likely will be a critical darling at awards shows rewarding the best films of 2016.

BUT actually I started with this film for none of these reasons.

Ultimately, I chose “Neerja” to begin a discussion of “heroine-oriented” cinema as it is a rendering of a true story of a real life heroine – an inspiration for women and men, boys and girls and for Indians, Pakistanis, Americans and Brits alike. Neerja is the story of the 22-year old flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, who saved the lives of 359 people following an attempted hijacking on Pan Am Flight 73 on the 5th September 1986 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on a stopover between Mumbai, Frankfurt and New York.

Portrayals of such heroines are important in all kinds of media, and if a reason was needed to justify why films with women protagonists are important, then it’s for reasons such as the need to tell stories such as Neerja’s. Critiques of “women-orientated” films (the same applies for literature and television) can often be that they are not serious and inherently superficial. This is a whole other discussion for another time. Nevertheless, it provides a context where it is particularly interesting to witness Sonam Kapoor, arguably one of the actresses in Bollywood today most commonly maligned in such a way, to lead this super-hit movie and for it to not only address a serious matter, but to demonstrate that stories of and about women are important to be heard.

SPOILERS ahead – if you don’t like them, I highly recommend you go watch the movie, and then come back. Trailer is below.

“Neerja” tells a compelling story, made gripping through strong performances and quality direction, despite most audience members likely being already aware of the outcome. Throughout the movie, Neerja is presented as a positive archetype for a number of different roles – and does a good job of inspiring without setting unobtainable expectations that depictions of “flawless” or “superhuman” women in media can sometimes create. I have described examples of some of these below.

Neerja as a Bollywood fan – like the audience herself

Neerja opens with scenes showing her personality, family life and portraying her as a “normal” young woman that the audience can relate to, in spite of her courageous and ultimately, tragically sacrificial actions that will follow. Her interest in Bollywood automatically connects her with the audience whilst her Rajesh Khanna fandom and declaration of his superiority as B-Town’s top hero over Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan mirrors the debates today between fans of the three Khans. That her mother is played by a frequent co-star of Khanna at the time, Shabana Azmi, perhaps only adds to this connection between Neerja herself and the Bollywood viewer.

Neerja as a “normal” young girl

The film passes the Bechdel test within the first 15 minutes, in a charming scene between the convincingly sleepy Neerja (played with the familiar youthful energy Sonam Kapoor brought to other heroine-oriented films such as Aisha and Khoobsurat, but also a seriousness and steeliness that has been less at the forefront of her work to date), and Neerja’s mother Rama (played by the iconic Shabana Azmi). The two discuss Neerja’s job and her mother’s worries related to her safety, which is laughed off by the pair with an intense foreshadowing of the tragic events to come.

Neerja as a girlfriend and a wife

Neerja is shown to have a relationship with Jaideep, who drives her to the airport, and reflects on her brief, and failed, arranged marriage. A flashback scene shows her husband berating her for ordering take-out and her mother for not having taught her to cook, accusing her of not understanding the meaning of “hard work”. It paints a rather unflattering picture of him and their marriage, especially in light of the heroics of the last few hours of Neerja’s life which will form the bulk of the film.

A brief scene presenting her “pious” vegetarianism in contrast to her husband’s aggressive meat eating is perhaps one of the most contrived moments in the movie, but it soon has greater significance as she is prevented from socialising or being presented publicly among his friends, being told to literally stay in the kitchen (!) and clean up after him.

Her isolation in Qatar and due to the break she is forced to take from working outside the home (in this case – her modelling career) is ruptured through a the supportive words of a progressive father who prioritises her well-being and happiness and teaches her to value strength and bravery over submissiveness and obedience.

This contrast of Neerja as a girlfriend, in a relationship she has chosen and supported in her work (presented positively) and as a wife in an arranged marriage where she is relegated to the kitchen (presented negatively) is a progressive view of the role of women, and given the truth in the story, legitimate, if somewhat simplified if taken as a broader message. However, if the message can be taken simply that women should be free to make their own choices, including in matters of marriage and career, and are not simply cooks and cleaners for their male spouses, this message is to be welcomed in the context of this movie celebrating life of, and commemorating the tragic heroism of, a truly brave woman.

Neerja emerges as a heroine

Rama is shown to have a mother’s instinct that something has happened, and when she is called about the hijacking by Harish, Neerja’s father, a journalist who hears about the situation through his work, they are both clearly extremely concerned but also try to maintain composure. The viewers can see this steeliness in Neerja’s reactions such as when the plane is first hijacked – her initial shock at the sound of shooting, her curious walk towards danger, her command to the rest of the cabin crew to close the door to prevent them entering (which is almost successful), and critically her alerting of the pilots of the fact that the plane has been hijacked, which critically gives them enough time to escape and prevents them from being forced to fly. Whilst a crucial act towards saving not only the pilots’ lives but also, ultimately that of the majority of the passengers, this act forces the young Neerja to take on the responsibility of becoming the most senior cabin crew member on a plane attacked by a terrorist group.

The alerting of the pilots and their escape also draws attention to Neerja and causes her to become somewhat of a target. She does not shy away from this however, volunteering to make an announcement on behalf of the hijackers in place of a traumatised colleague. They attempt to identify the radio controller on the plane, but Neerja discourages him from identifying himself in an effort to protect him.

Other key efforts to protect passengers that put her at greater risk include the hiding of American passports after an American passenger is murdered. This traumatic event sees Neerja barely avoid being shot, but after composing herself in the toilet, interspersed with a flashback to an even-more dejected looking Neerja during her brief marriage, when she sought a moment of solace in the bathroom. In the present timeline, she uses this moment of regaining composure to devise the plan to collect and hide the passports.

Neerja as de facto negotiator

Neerja’s compassion is seen extending even to the hijackers themselves, although she never condones their actions. These include from as early as her first announcement to the passengers on their behalf; to her plan to collect and hide the American passports under a rouse of giving out water, when she appeals to them by comparing their “duty” and “job” with her own towards the services of the passengers on the plane. She even attempts this after the auxiliary power expires and the hijackers panic, assuming they are about to be attacked. When this proves futile and they start shooting, Neerja rushes to open the emergency exit as quickly as possible and begin to evacuate the passengers and crew as quickly as possible.

Neerja as a survivor of abuse

Neerja’s bravery is framed as one that has either developed due to being a survivor of abuse, or an inherent part of her character that enabled her to escape her marriage.

The turning point where she is seen to realise her fighting instinct is shown in another flashback scene where Neerja is back in India with her family. One of her brother’s is notably supportive and her father Harish is particularly quiet and keen to avoid discussing why she is at home in India.

Her mother Rama is shown as less supportive and rather encourages Neerja to stick with the marriage, and persist in her attempts to adapt, somewhat insensitively dismissing her unhappiness as a burden that all married women need to take on. Rama’s stance turns however once Neerja reveals letters written by her husband to Harish, her father, detailing his dowry-related complaints, and recalling his psychological and even physical abuse towards her, and she appears to recognise this is not an acceptable situation. Sonam gives a convincing delivery whilst reading the letters, with the summary conclusion that “she is of no use to me” encapsulating how Neerja has been disparaged through a form of abuse and that intends to imply that therefore “she is of no use [whatsoever]”. Ultimately however, this narrative is not just challenged for its offensiveness, but in light of Neerja’s heroism, also absurd to even suggest.

This scene is also important as it shows that it is often other women who justify or seek to normalise abuse – and commonly in the name of love and support of a close family member. This means that the fact that Neerja’s insistence on escaping her life in Qatar and returning to India, and indirectly asserting her own worth and value in spite of being “of no use”, is ultimately heard and acknowledged by her family, especially her mother, all the more important. This serves as an assertion that the happiness of ALL women is important and ALL women have use and value.

Neerja as the romantic heroine

Curiously, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Neerja is also painted as a romantic heroine within the movie. A common trope of Hindi cinema, particularly of the last 20 years, is the romanticisation of “love marriage” for an audience that still overwhelmingly (although in decreasing frequency in some urban areas) continues to practice arranged marriage as the primary establishment of a relationship between romantic partners. However, romance developing after marriage is rare enough to be be an outlier among the majority of Hindi films released in recent years (some examples of such outliers that spring to mind would be Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Namastey London, Rab Na Bana Di Jodi, and most recently, Dum Laga Ke Haisha).

Given the facts around Neerja’s failed arranged marriage, the idealisation of a romantic relationship established prior to marriage, as she has with Jaideep, is perhaps unspectacular. What is more interesting in this regard is the prominence and significance this is given within the movie, especially giving the thriller aspect of the hijack and the inspiration of her heroics. This trope is used predominantly to emphasise loss and tragedy, with Neerja’s acceptance of her role as the romantic heroine coming at a point where she appears to have accepted her likely demise – she opens the birthday letter from Jaideep prematurely as she recognises she may not be able to wait until her birthday. Her tears of joy are accompanied by a genuine pain that she is unable to fulfil the proposal written within. Neerja’s last smile however is shown whilst in reflecting on this letter and the love it represents.

Jaideep, the supportive and loving husband that can never be, meanwhile, is seen awaiting news whilst sitting in front of a billboard with Neerja as a model. That Neerja is literally modelling bridal gear is a far from subtle nod to the fact that Neerja is being cast as the ultimate bride.

Neerja as Mother India

Neerja’s final actions, also demonstrated in a range of moments throughout the film portray her as a protector of children. She is ultimately shot after returning the line of fire in order to protect and evacuate a group of unaccompanied young children, acting as a human shield. Her last words are to a young boy she acts as a pseudo-mother figure to.

Neerja’s role as an archetypal mother figure plays into a subversion of one of the most famous of all “heroine-oriented” Hindi films, namely, “Mother India”. In this subverted ending however, our “mother to society” self-sacrifices literally, and can only protect “her” children, by being shot herself instead of acting as the shooter.

Neerja’s mother herself has a speech at the end of the movie, reflecting on her loss and on Neerja’s life. This is obviously partially to make best use of a powerhouse acting legend such as Shabana Azmi. But in the context of the film it also works to emphasise Neerja not just as a heroine, but also a more human figure – a daughter, a sister, a fiancé and a friend.

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