The good news first – Madhuri Dixit is back and yes, is as good as ever. The Indian screen definitely needs to see more of this gorgeous actress who shows no signs of rustiness in either the acting department or her phenomenal dancing capability despite being away from the screen for 5 years now. The bad news, however, is that Aaja Nachle is terribly disappointing.
Barring Chak De! India, 2007 has not been a good year for the Yashraj banner at least qualitatively. TaRaRumPum, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Laga Chunari Mein Daag, all poor films, have even failed to set the box office on fire as expected. Aaja Nachle is possibly Jaideep Sahni’s weakest script to date and the end result for director Anil Mehta, otherwise a fine cinematographer in his own right, is a dreary film, salvaged only somewhat by the ever dependable Ms. Dixit.
After years of being away from the town of Shamli, Dia (Madhuri Dixit), receives a call in New York. Makarand (Darshan Jariwala), her guru, is dying and she must return to Shamli – the town where she grew up, where she learnt to dance. It is an emotional return; not only has her guru passed away but the institution that he so lovingly nurtured, Ajanta theatre, is in decay and under threat of demolition because the local political authorities feel it a waste of prime real estate. With the help of Doctor (Raghuvir Yadav), the caretaker of Ajanta, Dia sets out on a mission to resurrect the spirit of Ajanta. In an atmosphere of ridicule and active hostility, Dia agrees to achieve the near impossible task of putting together a theatrical production of Laila Majnu. She must also ensure that every member of the production is from Shamli town and has only two months to prove her point. So begins her tumultuous journey of dealing with small town prejudices. Encountering the resentment of the powerful contractor and the cynicism of the local political powers, she has to resolve the delicate tensions of inter personal relationships and rally her motley team of non starters – a low level goon, Imran (Kunal Kapoor), the tomboy, Anokhi (Konkona Sen), local ex-MLA Chaudhary, Om Singh (Akhilendra Mishra), a vulnerable tea stall owner, Mohan Sharma (Ranvir Shorey), a responsible government official, Mr Chojar (Vinay Pathak), a struggling insurance agent Sanjeev Mehta (Jugal Hansraj).
Agreed the script is centred entirely around Madhuri and while one has no complaints on that front, the supporting cast largely suffer from stereotypical, poorly sketched and one dimensional characterisations. Various issues raised like nurturing of art versus modern development are skimmed over casually. The movement of the narrative is flat without any interesting ups and downs in the story whatsoever. The romantic track of Konkana and Kunal is unimaginative to say the least while the sequence of the auditions of actresses for the Laila role is woefully unfunny. (Incidentally the heroine audition sequences in Om Shanti Om too were also a big no-no) In fact, few scenes linger on in your mind and the script and execution of the film is full of logical loopholes with typical Hindi film liberties taken. For instance, if Madhuri struggles to get even the limited actors she has at her disposal, how is it that in the actual Laila Majnu performance we suddenly see a whole lot of extras and background actors?! What’s more, they also move and dance in perfect sync on huge multiple film-like sets! While on the Laila Majnu performance – it is extremely long drawn and tedious and just seems to go on and on and on. An American in Paris finale it aint!
Madhuri is the life and soul of the film lifting it several notches with her acting and dancing. It is a fine performance by a fine actress. Just see her in the sequence where she comes to Ajanta and speaks to her guru up in the sky before the first day’s rehearsal or her scene with Ranvir where she tells him they haven’t spoken about their past when she ran out on him with the American photographer. And her sublime dancing once again proves there is no heroine in Bollywood even today remotely close to Madhuri. She is just at another level altogether. The supporting cast are earnest enough and do what they can in the few moments they are given. Divya Dutta is extremely effective in her reconciliation sequence with Madhuri as is Ranvir Shorey in his scene with Madhuri where she tries to bring up the past. Konkana Sen, Vinay Pathak, Jugal Hansraj and Akhilendra Mishra are efficient enough without being spectacular while Kunal Kapoor in particular is defeated by an extremely weakly written role and Darshan Jariwala looks distinctly uncomfortable in the guru’s get up. Akshaye Khanna as Madhuri’s likeable adversary has his moments but Irrfan and Uttara Baokar, two extremely fine artists, are wasted.
Technical pluses include KU Mohanan’s able cinematography. Thankfully for once Salim-Sulaiman’s background score has been kept at a lower level so as not to intrude on the film. Their compositions for the songs, however, is just adequate at best. A Yashraj film and one with dance as the backdrop deserved better and a far more memorable musical score. The title track and O Re Piya are among the better composed tunes while the English song in New York City is just strange. The film suffers from a languid pace suffering in particular in the second half. But again, one has to say that an editor can only work with the material he is given with. In terms of production design, the small town recreation is much too set-like.
All in all, a big thumbs up for Madhuri and thumbs down for the film.
Hindi, Drama, Color