Madhuri Dixit is back, and as stunning as ever, in a vehicle whose very title, Aaja nachle ("Come and dance"), tells you that it's designed to play to her greatest strength. That alone makes Aaja nachle worth seeing, and while the film otherwise doesn't quite meet its potential, it's still a good solid all-around entertainer.
As a young girl, Diya was the toast of her small town of Shamli - both the star dancer in the local troupe and the breaker of local hearts. Impulsive and thirsty for adventure, Diya eloped with an American photographer, and Shamli was never the same. Diya's parents were shamed right out of town, and Shamli's stage, Ajanta, where Diya once dazzled with her performances, fell into disuse. Some ten years later, Diya, now divorced, returns to Shamli at the request of her dying mentor and decides to take on the establishment - in the form of a young MP named Raja (Akshaye Khanna) and a scheming businessman Farouq (Irfan Khan) - who would like to see Ajanta torn down and replaced by a shopping mall. Diya sets out to woo the hearts of Shamli back to her, and back to dance as well, orchestrating a home-grown production of the classic romance of Laila Majnu. She's operating against long odds though. The town is arrayed against her, and her troupe, led by the recalcitrant Imran (Kunal Kapoor) and the unpolished Anokhi (Konkona Sen Sharma) is ragtag at best. Diya's work is cut out for her.
Aaja nachle doesn't mess around. There's no coy opening, no stalling the much-anticipated revelation of its heroine. Instead, it gives you what you came for right in the very first frames - Madhuri smiling, Madhuri dancing. But this delectable appetizer is not offered without a hint of reproach toward Bollywood's prodigal daughter. Madhuri is dancing, all right, but she's dancing in New York, to a distinctly American-sounding R&B song with English lyrics, and surrounded by gora extras so pale that even fairer-than-fair Madhuri looks dusky in comparison. The effect (clearly calculated, and perhaps enhanced by makeup) is both striking and confusing, as if the film is simultaneously chastising Madhuri for fleeing to the States while reminding the audience that she's still very much theirs.
Unfortunately that symbolically laden opening is the last opportunity Aaja nachle takes to tie its feel-good story to a deeper message. There are numerous opportunities for allegory here, but none of them are clearly taken. There is neither a clear nod to the modern NRI incarnation of Madhuri Dixit as the prodigal savior of Hindi film, or a sharp criticism of those who might see her such. The groundwork is laid for a strong message on the tension between the benefits of progress and development on the one hand and the preservation of traditional art forms on the other, but nothing is built on that foundation either. Every time Aaja nachle gets close to saying something about anything at all, it shies away, retreating into the bright, shiny, familiar clothes of an all-out entertainer.
If that's all you demand from Aaja nachle, though, it delivers amply. After all, Madhuri is Madhuri, and she's as gorgeous and perfect as ever; there's nothing like watching her do her thing in a colorful production number, whether the resplendent title song in the film's first half or the intense 20-minute extravaganza that is the town's Laila Majnu production. And she's given a supporting cast that enhances the fun. Konkona Sen Sharma is particularly brilliant as the rough, gruff, tomboy Anokhi - she's an actor with seemingly limitless range and guts to match, and she inhabits this unglamorous character with delightful fearlessness.
And so Aaja nachle takes its place among satisfyingly solid entertainers, films that look great and leave you tapping your toes and smiling but that don't stand up to much deep thought afterward. Though I know that Madhuri is good for more than that, I can't really complain - I'll watch her come and dance any old time.
(Thanks to David for some helpful discussions.)