Thursday, February 07, 2008

Aaja Nachle: some remarks

[2007 was an interesting year for me -- I actually went and saw three Hindi movies! (Yes, yes, I know how snobbish that sounds.) I'm going to review all of them here, one by one, because they were all interesting (note, not good, but interesting) and all of them exemplify some of the changes taking place in the Mumbai film industry. First Aaja Nachle, next in line: Saawariya and Om Shanti Om.]

Ram Gopal Varma once remarked in an interview that the worst thing about the Bombay film industry was not poor over-all standard of most commercial Hindi movies. It was that even the better Hindi films were probably only as good as an average Hollywood product. This is a nuanced, tricky argument that needs some explanation. What it does not mean is that Hindi movies are worse over-all than Hollywood films. That would be like comparing apples and oranges. Nor is it simply a question of who has better production values, more money or better special effects.

In what way are Hindi movies poorer then? In this day and age Hollywood movies are, in a sense, "mass-produced". That is they have generic storylines, teams of writers, endless rewrites, focus group endings, etc. And like every other mass produced good, there is a certain quality to each piece. All cars look the same, work the same and none is made especially for you as such but all of them can be driven comfortably. A mass produced movie lacks a soul, for sure, but it serves its purpose reasonably well. Recent examples would include the romantic comedies 27 dresses and Over her dead body. Not exactly The Philadelphia Story-league but they suffice.

This wasn't (and isn't yet) so for our commercial Hindi movies. Even within the narrative conventions and production values of the genre -- a concoction of a story, songs, dances, humor, action, all derived in some ways, from folk theater -- barely 10% would make the cut as "average" (meaning at the level of a standard mass-produced product like 27 Dresses). Perhaps that was because Hindi films weren't mass-produced. The story of how a Hindi film gets made is almost always a saga: the cash is provided by the underworld, scripts are written on the day of the shooting, actors do three shifts a day, working on 20 different films at the same time, as, astoundingly, do some directors (prime example, Mahesh Bhatt in the early 90s).

But this is changing now. Economic liberalization, a booming economy and the rise of an urban middle-class, a change in the revenue model so that a film earns more from urban areas than from rural areas -- all of these are slowly changing the face of Hindi cinema. Not its narrative conventions, those are still the same, at least in essentials. But some kind of mass-production aspect has definitely come in. The number of average movies -- workmanlike constructions with a solid script, good songs, decent acting -- is on the rise. Overall, I think, this can only be a good thing.

Aaja Nachle is a prime example of an average movie -- and it illustrates the pros and cons of the mass production system perfectly. It seems to be heading towards disaster in its first twenty minutes. It opens with a gorgeous credit sequence -- Madhuri Dixit dancing. Her character Diya then receives a telephone call and the movie slides into 20 minutes of exposition, punctuated by lines straight out of a Handbook for Screenwriters. The story is this: Diya loved dance, ran off with an American, disgraced her parents, had a child, got divorced, and now her dying guruwants to meet her one last time. She arrives back in Shamli and more plodding ham-fisted lines follow, until the movie gets to its premise: Diya has to successfully stage a dance musical in the local theater, with local actors and dancers otherwise it will be demolished and a shopping mall will rise up in its place.

With that premise in place, the movie does reasonably well, if not superlatively. A sampling of engaging supporting actors is introduced, notably the mandatory love interests (Kunal Kapoor, smouldering!) and Konkana Sen Sharma (fearless and funny as usual, but whose plain jane looks seem to have been the main reason why she was cast), Diya's former pining lover (Ranbir Shorey, touching), and a squabbling middle-aged couple (Vinay Pathak and Sushmita Mukherjee, both hilarious). There are the usual crises: the smarmy politician (Akhilendra Mishra) changes sides thrice, the smarmy mall builder (Irfan Khan) tries sobataging the production, and so on, but it all culminates in a grand 20 minute production of Laila/Majnu for which choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant deserves most credit.

Critics, I think, have dumped on the movie a little unfairly. Most horrid, Khalid Mohamed telling Anil Mehta: "would he please stick to cinematography?". Khalid, would you please stick to criticism? All your movies stunk to the high heavens. Then there is GreatBong who, in an otherwise valid review, says:
Okay we know how this is going to end. We also know that believability is not one of commercial Hindi movies’ priorities. But when the principal plot premise is about a rag-tag bunch of no-hopers (numbering less than ten), with no prior dance skill, putting on a dance show, why oh why does the ultimate stage production (that goes on for more than 20 minutes) resemble a Broadway musical with flawless choreography, mega sets, awe-inspiring lighting and hundreds of backup dancers who move in glorious synchrony ? How would Lagaan have been if in the climax, Bhuvan’s team came out wearing corporate logos and colored clothing under floodlights with cheerleaders dancing and Tony Greig doing the pitch report
This completely misses the point. In Lagaan, Bhuvan and his team do come out and play impeccable cricket and they beat a vastly superior team in a game that they've been playing only for a few days! That's as hard to believe as Diya's rag-tag team putting on an ultimate Broadway-musical type performance. But this brings out an important difference between the two movies, two completely conscious decisions taken by the film-makers, and the reason why Lagaan rose above its material, while Aaja Nachle doesn't.

Lagaan's makers chose to emphasize the conflicts between the lead players. The level of cricket itself was tepid, even if artfully shot. And that was fine -- the level of games in sports movies has never fared well when you compare it to the real thing. But that isn't so where dance or music are concerned. A movie audience expects that a performance at the end of a movie about the performance be fairly competent . What would Aaja Nachle have looked like if the final performance had been staged realistically, as befits a rag-tag group with no prior dancing or singing experience? What would have sustained this tension, and maintained audience interest would not be the performance itself but the relationships between the characters. How those relationships and their ups and downs fed into the performance itself. How the performance changed those relationships. What if, for instance if Kunal Kapoor's Majnu and Konkana Sen's Laila had a tiff before the final performance? Or if .. .well, you get my point.

An Aaja Nachle that was more realistic and more about what it takes to stage a show by amateurs would have been a totally different movie; a movie that would have been stunning had it worked, but a miserable failture if it had not. I, for one, am not suprised that Sahni and Mehta chose the safer way: some funny lines, quirky supporting characters and a happy ending with a big production number. With a little hard work, the product, in any case, would at least turn out average -- and it did.

Finally, that's the problem with assembly-line film-making. You turn out more good products on an average (and this is certainly better than the status quo) but even talented film-makers like Jaideep Sahni and Anil Mehta take less risks.


Joe said...

You haven't seen 27 dresses and/ or Over her Dead Body to comment on them as assembly-line productions, have you?

And yes, Khalid, pls stick to criticism.

scritic said...

:-) No, I haven't - I sort of relied on the reviews and what my friends said...