As a comeback vehicle for onetime Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit, “Aaja nachle” is only so-so fare, but as an undemanding slice of masala entertainment, it’s more than worthy of the Yash Raj quality stamp. Uncomplicated putting-on-a-show yarn, centered on a non-resident Indian dancer who returns to her village to save a disused theater, is in the grand tradition of classic Hollywood tuners with a Bollywood twist. Despite carping reviews by Indian crix, pic has racked up solid local biz since its Nov. 30 opening, plus a warm $1 million in the U.K. Pic tanked Stateside, however.
Dixit, whose hottest period was from the late ’80s to mid-’90s, is best known to Western auds as high-class courtesan Chandramukhi in the 2002 version of “Devdas.” Officially retired for the past five years, the classy 42-year-old beauty still shows screen smarts but is ill-served by a lightweight script that makes her more a celebrity guest star than a central protagonist.
Brief Stateside opening, with a punchy number in her Gotham dance studio, has Dia (Dixit) peremptorily summoned back to India when she learns her veteran teacher, Makarand (Darshan Jariwala), is dying. With her tween daughter Radha (Dalai) in tow, Dia arrives in Shamli too late, though a filmed message from Makarand urges her to save the Greek-style, open-air theater known as Ajanta from being torn down to make way for a shopping mall.
Flashback limns how Dia ankled Shamli 11 years earlier after falling for an American photog (Felix D’Alviella), who fathered Radha but whom she later divorced. Though Dia is welcomed by Ajanta’s aged caretaker, Doctor (Raghubir Yadav), the rest of the town has mixed feelings about her return, not least its businesslike mayor, Raja Singh (matinee idol Akshaye Khanna, guesting).
Some of Dixit’s best scenes are opposite Khanna, with the two experienced thesps sparking off each other; more of this relationship could have given Dia’s role an emotional heft it lacks. Singh finally gives Dia two months to put on a show and prove Ajanta still has a place in the town’s life before hard-nosed developer Haru Farooq (Irrfan Khan) moves in.
Relatively light on hurdles and twists, pic gains its flavor from the ensemble of raggedy performers Dia recruits to put on her song-and-dance show. As a klutzy, determined wannabe, Konkona Sen (billed here without her third moniker, Sharma) almost steals the movie as a snub-nosed tomboy who falls for her macho leading man (Kunal Kapoor). She’s well supported by other subsidiary players, including Yadav and Vinay Pathak as a boring government official.
Dixit’s main problem is that, immaculately coiffed and garbed, and shot in delicate soft focus, she often seems divorced from the film going on around her. “Aaja nachle” seems not so much a comeback as a one-off special appearance.
Score by Salim-Sulaiman is OK without being memorable, but delivers in the actual show that forms the finale. Twenty-minute setpiece, based on a traditional Indian love story, is staged in classic, lavish MGM style without any regard to the physical limitations of the theater in which it takes place. Vaibhavi Merchant’s choreography also springs to life here.
Other tech credits are solidly pro. Hindi title translates as “Come Dance.”