The November of 2007 was no ordinary one. Dhoom 2, arguably the most celebrated installment of the Dhoom franchise, released to massive numbers and everyone swooned at the sizzling chemistry between Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan. Saawariya and Om Shanti Om opened on the same Friday, launching Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone respectively – debutants who would go on to become the top actors of their generation. Amidst this shor-sharaba came cinematographer Anil Mehta’s directorial debut, Aaja Nachle. Despite riding on the able, groovy shoulders of Madhuri Dixit, it stumbled. A scathing Hindustan Times review of the film reads, “Would he (Mehta) please stick to cinematography?” Next to the dreamy Shah Rukh Khan-starrer and the testosterone-filled Dhoom 2, Aaja Nachle’s experimental musical narrative got a hard pass from most critics and audiences. But to quote Hannah Gadsby, “Hindsight is a gift, stop wasting my time.”
Today, when women-centric projects seem to have been nudged to stay in the OTT lane and when Hindi cinema’s once ubiquitous charm seems elusive, Aaja Nachle feels restorative. It’s confidently melodramatic. It has a web of character arcs brought to life by terrific supporting actors: Konkona Sensharma, Vinay Pathak, Divya Dutta, Akshaye Khanna, Irrfan, Ranvir Shorey, Kunal Kapoor and even a small part by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It revels in the quirky rhythm of its dialogue. But mostly, Aaja Nachle works because it is right out of a childhood storybook: Fantastical, absorbing and infinitely comforting.
Aaja Nachle chooses ‘the hero’s journey’ for its narrative structure – arguably the most tried-and-tested method in storytelling. It goes like this: A hero’s ordinary life is disrupted with the call to a great, even perilous, adventure; the hero embarks on his journey, battling conflicts that test his character, patience and mettle; and finally, he returns victorious. Aaja Nachle has all of this — only its hero is a divorced, single mother, Diya (Dixit).
Diya once reigned over every heart in the town of Shamli through her performances at Ajanta – the local stage for “nrityakala” – before she eloped with a visiting foreigner. One can imagine the horror: A small-town girl who not only has the audacity to fall in love but that too with a white man who will whisk her away to America – the land of everything too Western, too blasphemous for India’s sanskriti. Ashamed, Diya’s parents leave Shamli in a hurry and all that remains is Diya’s legend, whispered with a mix of horror, glee and lewdness. A decade later, Diya has settled down in New York, divorced from the man she once abandoned home for and is raising her daughter alone. It is here that she receives the call to her perilous adventure: Her Guruji (Darshan Jariwala), the man who taught her how to dance, is dying and needs her to save Ajanta, the monument that was vilified by townspeople as much as she was. Diya – armed with nothing but a thousand-watt smile, steely determination and a grumpy child – flies down to Shamli.
The logistical issues are given their fair due. Diya wants to put on a grand show to make the town realise Ajanta’s importance, but the local legislator insists she must use local actors, leading to hilarious auditions and a rag-tag team of oddballs as the main cast. Another politician is displeased with the “naach-gaana” and sends his goons to tear down the place. The play’s lead actors don’t get along and so on. But Jaideep Sahni’s script never lets us forget that the biggest obstacle – and the most hurtful one – is the town’s disrespect for Diya. The first dance performance she holds in Shamli invites furious seetis and furore. The same crowd mocks her the minute she starts talking and stops being what they have always expected her to be: Entertainment. Ajanta’s obstacles are moulded to become Diya’s – in her fight to secure dignity for the site, she endeavours to secure dignity for herself.
In more ways than one, Aaja Nachle is about Diya and the film is unabashed about this. The film begins and ends with her. She has solitary monologues about the arduous task she has been left with, and the film’s conflicts are fashioned in a way that bring out her values. This might be the norm for the many male protagonists who are allowed to helm films, but it’s especially heartening to see a talented female actor get the no-holds-barred hero treatment.
The central romance of the film — because every good masala film needs a love story — is between the brawny, sullen Imraan (Kapoor) and the inelegant, determined Anokhi (Sensharma). When Imraan reluctantly decides to play the role of Majnu in the Laila-Majnu play, an infatuated Anokhi fights, screams and cries her way to becoming his Laila. Of course, this doesn’t change how disgusted he seems to be with her, often spitting hurtful insults at her. Diya gives Anokhi a Main Hoon Na-makeover and instructs the younger woman to play hard to get (cut them some slack. It was 2007. We didn’t know any better). Nobody is surprised when it works, but the process is delicious to watch. What is it about a woman growing more confident (even if it is for a man’s attention) and the man’s consequent bafflement at it?
Imraan and Anokhi’s love story garners deeper meaning as we watch them fall for each other while growing into the characters they’re playing. When the film’s climax – an enthralling 20-minute musical re-telling of the great love story – shows Majnu follow Laila around the market as she picks out bangles for herself, it calls back to Imraan doing the same with Anokhi earlier. When Imraan’s own gang wreaks havoc upon Ajanta, it’s a nudge towards how the Laila-Majnu's romantic epic is also one of betrayal. Anokhi throwing herself onto Imraan to protect him isn’t only an act of passion but leaks into the later scene where the two lovers are brutally beaten and separated. Viewed through the light of the climax, Aaja Nachle’s emphasis on the romance finds meaning, instead of being there simply because it’s a Hindi film.
More than halfway through Aaja Nachle, a minute-long single take walks us through a set being created. Painter babu weaves blue shades on a cardboard wall, a throng of mismatched dancers practise their moves and someone shouts, “What’s happening with the costumes?” Lights are checked and replaced and the budget is kept on a tight leash. Even as the camera holds still on the actors in focus, the stage bubbles with life in the background, prepping itself for the show. When Aaja Nachle’s climax arrives, with its opulent sets, dramatic lighting and elaborate costumes, it lays bare the labour that goes into creating a seemingly effortless show.
Not only is Aaja Nachle an ode to theatre, it reminds the audience of the utility of art itself. The people of Shamli go from being dismissive of the art form – some even calling it “Amrika ka naach gaane ka culture” (an American song-and-dance routine) – to finding a part in the show and locating the pride in their work. At the show, friends and neighbours shed tears and laugh along with those on stage, enchanted by the new facets displayed by familiar faces. The climax works not only because it’s a glorious spectacle but because it hands art back to the common people.
Aaja Nachle is by no means a perfect film. It was criticised for its ‘flat’ direction and for being too long. It has that insistent Bollywood quality of giving everyone a happy ending. But it has more than enough to redeem itself (example: Akshaye Khanna, in a positive politician role, doing his eyebrow and chin flirty thing. You know what it is). In modelling Ajanta’s victory through daring risk and dollops of faith, Aaja Nachle endeavours to do the same with us, urging us to see the importance of radical creative decisions and wild flourishes.