Aaja Nachle (India, 2007)
My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test: 3 out of 3
Director: Anil Mehta
Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Raghuvir Yadav, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kunal Kapoor, Akshaye Khanna, Divya Dutta, Irrfan Khan, Ranvir Shorey
Plot: A single mother from New York tries to save a theatre from demolition in the village she grew up in.
The film is available to rent or buy on youtube.
About the film
Madhuri Dixit (perhaps the only actress in Bollywood to achieve stardom on the level of the biggest male stars) made her comeback after a 5 year break with this film and it’s clear that her presence gave the makers the confidence to break all the rules. It’s unlike any Bollywood film I’ve ever seen before.
This film doesn’t just have a female protagonist, it has no leading man at all. The leading lady, on the other hand, was 40 years old at the time of the film’s release. Whether we’re talking Bollywood or Western mainstream cinema, a 40 year old female protagonist with no leading man is a huge rarity.
Even more interestingly, all of the men Dia (Madhuri’s character) has any sort of romance or innuendo with, are played by men younger than her. The actor playing Steve (the man who Dia elopes to the USA with) is 11 years younger. Akshaye Khanna (the politician who makes a very amusing pass at Dia) is 8 years younger. The actor playing Mohan (Dia’s fiance who has his heart broken when she elopes with another) is 5 years younger. Finally, there’s a sort of flirty scene in which Dia tries to make Imran take the leading role in her play. Kunal Kapoor, the actor playing Imran, is 8 years younger.
These age differences are even more striking in that nothing is made of them. Dia is not a “cougar” or anything of the sort. She’s simply an attractive woman that men take notice of. In one case (the 11 year difference) the male character appears solely in a flashback to Dia’s youth, so at that point Madhuri is playing a character much younger than she really is. But for the rest of the film she is playing more or less her actual age.
In other words, Madhuri is treated much like a leading man would be. It’s quite normal for men to be cast alongside younger women and for nothing to be made out of it. But for me it’s probably the first time I see it done with a leading woman in either Bollywood or Hollywood. I guess 5-11 years isn’t that much when in both Hollywood and Bollywood it’s not uncommon to have leading men in their forties cast alongside ladies in their twenties, but I still appreciate that this film did even that much.
Aaja Nachle starts in a very matter of fact way. In the first minutes of the film Dia gets “the phone call” during a dance class she’s teaching. The man who taught her to dance is dying. It was nicely done – that way in which those kinds of phone calls happen, one is never ready for them. Everything has to be put on hold because Dia needs to be there – both for her teacher’s sake and for her own.
Dia’s little daughter demands an explanation for the sudden plane trip to the small Indian town her mother vowed she would never ever go back to. And this is how we learn Dia’s past. She mistakes a summer romance with an American for the love of her life and elopes, despite her family’s arrangements to marry her off to a really nice guy from town. Soon after she and Steve arrive in the US, she realizes they’re not right for each other. Pregnant and divorced she makes a life for herself in New York, completely cut off from family and friends. A difficult reality, but Dia appears to have coped well with it. She loves her daughter to bits and she’s clearly enjoying a successful and fulfilling career. All of this is shown so bluntly, raw and real.
I really loved the blunt and matter of fact way in which they handle Dia’s life choices. The way Dia just lives her life as it is and the way the town judges her – nobody actually calls her a slut to her face, but it’s clear what they think. There’s a scene where she gets reaquainted with a childhood friend (Divya Dutta) and meets said friend’s husband (Irrfan Khan). The way in which Irrfan Khan reacts upon hearing she is divorced is so so real. No direct comment is made, but it’s obvious what he thinks.
As much as I loved certain aspects of the film, it does, IMO, have a very major flaw. It failed to make me care about the main storyline – saving the Ajanta theatre from demolition. Sure, it was interesting enough to watch Dia’s attempts to do so. The whole argument of why art is such an important thing to have in a town is nicely put together. But did I really care how the film would end? Did I root for Dia’s success in this endeavour? Nope, not really. And judging by other people’s reactions, I’m not the only one. IMO that’s probably why the film seriously flopped, even though there’s a lot of quality things in it.
That said, there is still much to appreciate in this film. It’s a good quality production with some wonderful dance scenes and good acting.
While it doesn’t have any really big names other than Madhuri in it, it has an absolutely fantastic cast of character actors – Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Raghuv Yadav, Divya Dutta.
But by far the most enjoyable part of the movie for me were the scenes between Madhuri and Akshaye. Akshaye Khanna does a very small guest part in this, but it’s a really good one. The “flirtish adversary chemistry” between the two of them is awesome and the scenes where they’re trying to keep to certain standards of politeness while actually being incredibly rude and mean to each other are hilarious. It was also fun for me to have so much of the dialogue between them in English. Dia’s daughter, having been brought up in New York, is much more comfortable with English than Hindi and both Dia and Uday (Akshaye’s character) is very comfortable with English (Uday was educated abroad), so much of their conversation ends up being in English. I loved the way they intonated and played with the English dialogue. The “I’m the bad guy” line was particularly amusing.
Overall, an interesting film for quite a few reasons, but IMO it didn’t entirely come off.