Thursday, January 17, 2008

Aaja Nachle: Making Room for the Prodigal Daughter

Sometimes a film comes around that is groundbreaking. Yet it is often the film's very off-beat quality that supposedly all film critics crave that ensures that our hubris-ridden, utterly idiotic media buries it. Something of the sort happened to The Rising: The Legend of Mangal Pandey and Swades. And Indian media can take now great pleasure in having buried one of the most thematically interesting films of 2007: the Madhuri comeback vehicle, Aaja Nachle.

Aaja Nachle - logically - is considered la diva Dixit's comeback film. The media (and her most famous if oily fan - Madhuri par Fida Hussain) expected the sex-bomb of old lighting up the screen. What they got wasn't India's wet-dream girl but a woman so powerful and secure in herself that she is beyond even dreams of attainment for most men. Such was the immense power of la Dixit's performance. Of course, the permanently adolescent Indian men threw their toys out of the cot and insisted that if she weren't going to be their fantasy, well then they didn't want her at all.

But there seems to be a slighly more upbeat coda to this media-led funeral: made on a small budget, the film continues to run in small centres around the country and will most likey recover costs.

But what about the movie itself? Well, for the first time (as far as I can remember) in mainstream cinema, a film makes room for the return of the prodigal daughter. Madhuri's character, Dia - the story is told here in flashback - not only elopes with her white, American lover (oh horror!), but soon after divorces him, and raises their daughter by herself. Her scandalised parents cut off all contacts with her and move to another town, hoping to live down the "shame." Not too long ago, the conventions of popular cinema would have required that any of these transgressions be punished by Dia's death and humiliation. But this is the - ahem - new India - and in this shiny bright country, even prodigal daughters get a second chance.

Dia can not only come back to her hometown, but make peace with a jilted suitor, charm the local thug-politico, put up a successful theatre production, and in the process, find a potential new love. The NYTimes lamented that the film didn't provide a 40+ woman with more of a personal life. But then the film is not about Dia's personal life - especially in Hollywood terms, ie, her loves and lovers - but rather about her reclaiming a lost heritage - of a dying dance school, of a rejected childhood, of a lost past. The film in all senses is about Dia's return to her hometown, embattled but triumphant, angry but forgiving, and finally, accepted by those she considers her own. It is a measure of the filmmaker's courage that this is even deemed possible on celluloid.

Interesting - and often amusing - subtexts of the film include a clever critique of an ignorant young man (the suave Kunal Kappor barely fitting the role of the small town thug) destroying his own heritage in name of resisting "foreign culture;" a Cosmo-style solution for spicing up a boring marriage with a bit of experimentation; and a Cinderella-like transformation of the town tomboy-hoyden (played yet again by the ever-ubiquitous Konkana Sen). Yet there are more complex themes that resonate with the new India.

In this India, even a hereditary Raja sahib must win his elections, and run the risk of losing the next one if he doesn't provide all that he promises to his constituents. No Eklavya-style grateful, forever loyal peasants then in this view of the country. Played with great flair by Akshay Khanna - who once again reminds of his initial promise from Border as an actor - this local politician is not only fair but also tough. He can flirt and charm, but also engage in real-politik. And yet at heart, he remains a good man trying to bring change to his lost mofussil constituency - perhaps a growing indicator of pending changes in Indian polity and a bit of wish-fulfillment combined.

Now the problems with the movie - and yes, there are quite a few. For a film purporting to be Madhuri's comeback, the camera-work is noncommittal at best. In fact, rarely has Madhuri been shot with such lack of passion, with most shots seeming as if the cameraman Ritesh Soni was too scared to approach the diva. For all her career, the camera has adored Madhuri but in this film, the camera seems a little too overawed to shoot her.

And yes we know this was a small budget flick, but surely we didn't need the sets to be quite sooo tacky. Even small towns have their charming spaces - remember Umrao Jaan with the dingy, decaying interiors. Or Bunty and Babli with the dusty little towns as appropriate playgrounds for the mischief-making duo? Surely the art director should have been pulled up for this?

Second - Saroj Khan's pizzazz was missing in the choreography especially for Madhuri's numbers. With a folksy, peppy, musical score, this film was a perfect vehicle for another Madhuri-Saroj collaboration. But alas! Yes the choreography was interesting, quite stylized, even quite innovative. But Madhuri is not a Rani Mukherjee or Preity Zinta or Kajol. She can actually dance! Remember her in Devdas? Remember Maar daala or Chanak Chanak? Now compare her in Jalwa or the film's theme song. That athanni-chavanni hip shake could be achieved by any two-bit actress, why waste Madhuri on those? Despite its overt dance theme, Aaja Nachle does not capitalise on its greatest asset - Madhuri's ability to dance!
And finally, I know we live in a plastic age, but Madhuri, WHAT have you done to yourself? Obviously la Dixit can afford, and has the intelligence to select, a better surgeon than Aishwarya, but could we have laid off the botox just a bit? A re-done face meant that Madhuri's formerly mobile and expressive face lacked that famous magical ability to emote. Her eyes sparkled, and her smile was just as bright. But the brows remained uncreased, the eyebrows shot upwards in strange angles, and the smooth cheek never showed a crease. Compared to the devastating, harrowing beauty of Chandramukhi in Devdas, Aaja Nachle's Dia may be fresher but she is also utterly plastic. This may well be a reason that the camera never lingers on her face. Perhaps doing so would have exposed the extent of cosmetic work the diva has managed to get done.

Be that as it may, Madhuri reminds her audience why she is one of the greats of Indian cinema. That spot - in the pantheon of stars, alongside Madhubala, Hema Malini, Sridevi - is hers for all history. She also reminds us why there has been no replacement for her in the past five years, despite Rani's extraordinary acting performances, Aishwarya's plastic beauty, Priyanka's glamour puss routines and Priety Zinta's bubbly charm. There hasn't been a dancer in the industry since Madhuri. Not surprisingly then, Bollywood fans haven't found another dream-girl either.

All in all, Aaja Nachle is a lovely little film - more a pearl than a glittering diamond, but definitely deserving of a second, even a third viewing. If for nothing more than as a reminder of what a true screen icon can achieve. And of course, for the hope that in a 21st century India, even prodigal daughters may return home.