Film: 'Aaja Nachle'; Cast: Madhuri Dixt, Akshaye Khanna, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kunal Kapoor, Divya Dutta; Director: Anil Mehta; Ratings: **Top nautch. That's Madhuri Dixit in her comeback. Chiselled, charming, chirpy and enchanting, Madhuri dances her way into the tailor made plot and takes to the screen like she has never been away.
Writer Jaideep Sahni has given the gorgeous Dixit a role she can sink her teeth into. The character is rebellious and yet ravishing. A dancer returns from the US to a small conservative town years after she eloped with an American. What happened to her cross-cultural marriage is quickly swept under the carpet in one voice-over statement. She brings with her a cynical little daughter who keeps wondering when she can go home. Frankly, after a while, so do we.
Cinematographer turned director Anil Mehta furnishes the story of a culture clash and the prodigal daughter's return to her roots with a minty melt-in-the-mouth sensation. You have it. And you move on.
In a film that addresses itself to the critical question of cultural erosion, there's a lamentable lack of lucidity in the narration. You are given the characters that govern the theme but you aren't given a chance to look at their lives and socio-cultural conflicts in any depth or detail.
Too many people inhabit Mehta's quaint, appealing, but finally unsubstantiated world of half-lived dreams and forgotten values.
The screenplay resorts to the oldest trick in the book of inspirational art. A bunch of chronic losers are provided encouragement and final triumph with the help of a disgraced coach.
'Aaja Nachle' takes the 'Lagaan' and 'Chak De India' scenario and trans-locates it to the fine arts. The results are fitfully humorous and enticing but never exploratory in
Madhuri's character is spunky, fiery, and acerbic, and is liable to give the sardonic businessman (Akshay Khanna in a surprisingly warm cameo) a tongue-lashing with the same ferocity that she invests into sweet-talking the local politician (Akhilendra Mishra) into political patronage.
But somewhere the romantic sub-plot featuring Kunal Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma as the local goon and female buffoon, respectively, gets the better of the narration.
In the second-half, Anil Mehta's storytelling begins to sag. Thankfully, Madhuri's acting does not.
Stunningly statuesque and expressive, she carries the weight of the over-populated plot on her frail shoulders with endearing enthusiasm. But even Madhuri is unequal to the task when the absurdities begin to pile up in a plot that culminates in the naive idealism of the lengthy Laila-Majnu skit.
Though there's much talk of sanskriti (culture), kalaa (art) and sabhyata (civilisation) in the dialogues, none of this gets a roomy or deep representation in any of the sequences. Too busy cutting the scenes into trendy snippets, the editor somewhere loses the essence and spirit of the cultural theme.
The multitudinous characters of the dusty town, brilliantly captured on camera by Mohanan, prepare for a dance ballet on Laila-Majnu with as much seriousness as a bunch of kindergarten students putting together a birthday skit for their favourite teacher.
Besides the majestic Madhuri, the rest of talented cast also gets seriously supportive in this pale tale of losers and hooters. Standing out in the vast cast are Ranbir Shorey as Madhuri's still besotted jilted husband-to-be and Vinay Pathak as her stuffy landlord who learns to loosen up.
The actors rise and shine even when they are given ridiculous lines to mouth. For example, Irrfan Khan as the stereotypical real-estate shark sinks his teeth into a role that requires an out-and-out filmy villainy.
The choreography, sets and costumes convey no sense of continuity. In the climax, gym-built beefcakes emerge from nowhere in the backward town to line up as dancers. The venue for dance performances looks like a plaster of Paris representation of Roman ruins. While the plot talks of fine arts and culture, Madhuri's dances look like carryovers from her dhak-dhak days.
Having said all this, let's make it explicitly clear that 'Aaja Nachle' rises notches above the routine. Its heart is in the right place, even if the rationale of staging a musical play to redeem a sagging town falls apart somewhere down the line.