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Once more, with intensity

Posted by jahanzaibmemon on January 1, 2008

Madhuri Dixit’s Aaja Nachle deserves a relook. It celebrated a double drama. One is of the small town in touch with its fantasies, and the other of middle age refusing to return to the Middle Ages

Bollywood has a special understanding of fantasy and reality. In it, cinema and reality don’t separate themselves, they merge osmotically into each other. The recognition of this is caught best in the names of heroes in movies. They often use their own first names, like Vinod, Amit or Akshay. It is an acknowledgement that in a cinematic society, cinema as myth and society as reality blur in social life.

When Madhuri Dixit’s Aaja Nachle was released, reviewers failed to understand this grammar. The story is about a dancer who comes back to her little town to revive a dance troupe as a tribute to her guru. We are simultaneously watching the story of a major film star returning to the movies after several years. She is older now, her face may not carry the youth and freshness of the earlier years. The second drama asks whether the fans will accept this older woman. The two stories in fact become parallel scripts, double lenses through which the audience watches the movie.

The reviewers, of course, lambasted both stories, contending that both the film and the drama of Madhuri’s return were failures. The most generous eked out a couple of stars. What I would like to argue is that not only were the reviews bad, but that they were failures of the cinematic imagination that drives India.

Let me rephrase the script sociologically. In India, today, two events have a dramatic quality as social facts. One is the growth of the small town as the agent of globalisation, and the second is the explosion of the body and its fragmentation. The body as a floating signifier includes the body of the beauty contest, the body as organ, the sexual body of the new generation and the bonded body of tradition, all seeking to define the body politic.

Aaja Nachle is a movie that understands these scripts brilliantly. It is a story of an Indian dancer, who returns to her small town. She seeks to recreate the legend of Laila-Majnu as a contemporary play. The Laila-Majnu of the play merge with the fantasies and romances of a small town. The developers are planning a large mall and therefore the theatre has to come down. The play captures small town fantasies, doubts, failures and the need to dream again and again. Small towns contain large dreams and little neighbourhoods enact big fantasies.

All Madhuri has for her musical are some out of shape enthusiasts. She teaches them the power of aerobics. Aerobics is not just the American response to Yoga, it is an attempt to defreeze the Indian body, which, at the most, is capable of a few gyrations it calls ‘bhangra’, at marriages and birthdays. The movie is virtually asking us to recover the body, renounce middle-age fat, old age, debility, and the sloth and pulp of the middle class. Dance is a therapy to a new self and the dance offered is a democratic space accessible to all classes.

The focus is not just on the cinematic events, but on Madhuri’s return as well. In a cinematic sense, Amitabh Bachchan achieved the first step in Baghban and later went on to demonstrate that being 60 does not call for the imagination of withered spirituality, but is a moment for renewed physicality and sexuality.

But Amitabh as a perennial star is still a gendered performance. He underlines possibilities available to the retired man, as professional manager, doctor or banker. Bollywood movies are harsh to actresses beyond a certain age. They are condemned to playing mothers, mothers-in-law, greying crones. Our society is harsh on women whose eyes acquire crow-lines, or creases.

Madhuri’s return is an answer to that drama. The face is older, more tired, but alive in a different way. It has a maturity of another kind, of a woman who has made mistakes but still feels confident enough to go on, who sees her art as freedom and freedom as an art, who is aware of her sexuality and not ready to let age stereotypes annex it. There is a power to her dance, a flexibility to her body, even if it is not the suppleness of youth.

The beauty of Madhuri’s return was something M.F. Husain was ready to understand and celebrate. But not our reviewers, not wishing to yield to that sense of liberation she was evoking. They trashed the script, the narrative, the direction, but they did not see the double drama that the movie celebrates. One is of the small town in touch with its fantasies and the other of middle-age refusing to return to the middle ages. This message codes both Madhuri the actor and the real life star.

Bollywood has the courage to open these questions which our social sciences do not. Our marketing men think life begins at 20 and ends at 30. But a bit of sociology would teach them that beyond the much-touted change of youth, is the quieter, harder sociological drama of middle and old age, which has a different nuance and intensity. Aaja Nachle is an intimation to that possibility. Let us not drown it in its reviewers’ stereotypes.

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