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Dec 01, 2007 at 09:56am IST

Masand's Verdict: Aaja Nachle

Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Konkona Sensharma, Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey

Direction: Anil Mehta

It's the film every Madhuri Dixit fan has been waiting for and I say this with authority because I'm leading the pack. Her first film in five years, this week's new release Aaja Nachle stars Madhuri as a divorced NRI woman who returns to the small town she grew up in, eleven years after she took off with an American boyfriend against her parents' wishes.

Once here, she learns that the local theatre she's so emotionally attached to faces the threat of being demolished. It's where she spent the best years of her life, learning dance from her guru. Determined to stop local political authorities from turning what was once a cultural space into a shopping mall, she sets out to prove that the people of that town still possess a strong love for the arts, and promises to stage an ambitious musical with local talent at that very venue.

Turns out, she may have bitten off more than she can chew, as the townsfolk aren't exactly tripping over each other to sign up for the show. When she does manage to assemble a team, it's a bunch of oddballs who come together, and it's up to her now to show them all the right moves.

A simple, old-fashioned, feel-good drama, Aaja Nachle has its heart in the right place – it is in many ways that classic tale of rebellion, regret and redemption. It's also an inherently noble premise – too idealistic, some might say – but sincere nevertheless.

What fails the promising plot is its plodding screenplay. In complete contrast to his work on Chak De India, writer Jaideep Sahni's drama here unfolds at a leisurely pace and is fairly predictable for the most part, resorting to clichés, cinematic liberties and happy coincidences every time the story hits a rough spot.

Take for example, Madhuri's sense of loyalty and obligation to the place she grew up in – it comes off looking too contrived when you consider she hasn't once checked in on her home, her folks or her friends since she left over a decade ago.

Or that stereotypical portrayal of an NRI kid making her first trip to India – commenting on the cows in the middle of the road, grumbling about the mosquitoes, and enquiring if the local water is safe to drink. Fair to say, it's not the kind of writing you've come to expect from Sahni who's given us such gems as Khosla Ka Ghosla and Chak De India recently.

To a large degree the holes in this screenplay are covered up by the excellent characters Sahni creates, and the actors who pump life into those roles. As the tomboyish town bully who'll do anything to win the affection of the man she loves, Konkona Sensharma is nothing short of fantastic. Her greatest strength is that she isn't afraid of making a fool of herself and she doesn't worry about being laughed at. As a result, her performance in Aaja Nachle is fearless and uninhibited.

Vinay Pathak, playing Madhuri's dull, stodgy middle-class landlord makes his every minute on screen so memorable. Just watch him bring to life that scene where he approaches Madhuri for a part in the troupe so he can prove to his wife that he isn't a bore. And then there's Ranvir Shorey, who strikes all the right chords as Madhuri's devoted admirer – he invests in his part just the perfect dose of vulnerability, creating in the end a character that's so lovable.

Directed by Anil Mehta, the brilliant cinematographer of such films as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Lagaan and Saathiya, Aaja Nachle reminds you more than once of that heart-warming Juliette Binoche starrer Chocolat in which a spirited woman transforms a conservative, religious town into a community of open-minded, fun-loving people. The protagonist of that film uses chocolate to win over her detractors, in Aaja Nachle, Madhuri uses dance.

Sadly, for a film about dance, this one has only one reasonably memorable dance piece, and even that pales in comparison to the actress' superhit item numbers of the past. The 20-minute-plus climatic dance opera is a tad long, and fails to hold your interest because Madhuri Dixit's hardly in it.

If there's another reason Aaja Nachle doesn't quite hit the mark, it's because Anil Mehta's direction seems to lack an individualistic style – it's fairly flat, straight-out storytelling. In a day and age when we're hearing so many distinct voices from new directors, this one is just a murmur.

But if there's really one reason and one reason alone to watch this film, then expectedly that reason is Madhuri Dixit. It's hard to take your eyes off the screen when she's up there, dazzling you with her spontaneity, her easy charm and her 100-watt smile. Because she's such an intuitive, fantastic actress, she doesn't once stick out making faces into the camera, rattling off ridiculous lines, or even lacing her words with that American twang. Watching her move gracefully to the film's dance numbers is a treat for die-hard Dixit fans like myself.

So even if Aaja Nachle doesn't quite deliver on all its promises, go watch it because Madhuri Dixit is spectacular in it. I'm going with two out of five and an average rating for director Anil Mehta's Aaja Nachle. It's what I'd call a slow dance, so go armed with lots of patience.

Rating: 2 / 5 (Average)

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