The year was 2007. I was at Roxy theatre in Charni Road, for a morning show of Chak De! India. Like many others thronging in, I also bought the ticket for Shah Rukh Khan’s latest on a female team’s hockey coach that earned rave reviews since its release. As the auditorium became dark, Yash Raj Films, the banner gave us a glimpse of that abdomen that could glide with music. “She’s back!”, it announced, and the theatre erupted into applause and cheers. Bollywood was getting its dancing diva back, in a film aptly named after dance.
Aaja Nachle had the potential to truly capitalize on Dixit’s mettle, but fell widely short of it. The story had possibilities, but it didn’t bother to amp up the drama, leaving a flatland of musical rendezvous. And the ones who went to see her thumkas came home disappointed, because the film refused to use her twirling skills in the long finale, in a film that was exclusively about dance.
Dixit’s next two choices were Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya and Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang. Chaubey’s film was a clever take on same-sex love in the garb of a crime drama, and showed gumption as a huge step for LGBT narrative in India. Dixit was cast aptly as an ageing Begum, but it didn't give her enough room beyond shaking a leg or flashing that famous grin. Gulaab Gang was a giant misfire, where ridiculous action choreography merged with a misplaced sense of social justice.
In all these three films, dance played a role in some way or the other. If Aaja Nachle and Dedh Ishqiya made it legitimate by making her character a dancer, Gulaab Gang made her dance despite being a social activist. Of course, no one should be barred from the pleasure of dancing and self expression. But when her character suddenly broke into choreographed steps while a serious operation was underway, it stripped the film off any seriousness of tackling a conflicted issue like social justice in patriarchal India.
This brings us to one specific aspect of Dixit that is not only her biggest strength, but is also her Achilles heel as an artiste.
Since her debut debacle Abodh (1984), Dixit rose to fame with Tezaab (1988), which had the famous Ek Do Teen song, a dance number that made her an instant star. As she continued to climb dizzying heights, she unceasingly churned out terrific dance numbers, that showed her relentless agility and uninterrupted grace.
Dixit became synonymous with dance. Every kid growing up in the 80s and 90s aped her dance moves, and wanted to be like her, an aspiration beautifully captured in Chandan Arora’s criminally underrated film, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003).
But this boon also became her biggest bane. Every producer and every director signing her, and every single person sitting in the audience wanted her to dance. And in the hullabaloo of all this, Madhuri Dixit, the actress got a raw deal. She got films that kept the range wide open for her to swing to the beats of music, but little choice to show her dramatic virtuosity.
She was a star no doubt, her inborn allure could fill the screen like no other. But her films never went beyond the obvious. There were furious sparks here and there. Remember the scene in Beta (1992) where she fights with the entire village shielding Anil Kapoor’s Raju with a katari, or the scene in Prahar (1991), where she is masking her pain of separation in a barrage of crossness.
While assessing Dixit’s career, let’s not forget the fact that she rose to prominence in the worst period of Hindi cinema, i.e. the period between 80s and 90s. Not only were most films released during this period of pitiable quality, they also discharged the most horrendous fashion spectacle the movie screen could ever conjure. In the midst of all this, Dixit was there, finding grace in grease, schmaltz and sore melodrama. Since her gliding moves continued to get the attention, the movie lore forgot the prospect of her acting radius.
Her most mature performances came out when she was descending from the pinnacle of her stardom, achieved with the stupendous success of Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994). If Mrityudand (1997) was a pure showreel of restrained wrath, in Pukar (2000), the retaliation of a neglected love found initiative in her treacherous Anjali. In Lajja (2001), she chomped her scenes with relish as the reprisal of modern day Sita. In her last monster hit Devdas (2002), Sanjay Leela Bhansali might have favoured his muse Aishwarya Rai, and Shah Rukh Khan as the titular figure, but without Dixit’s self-propelled charm, it would be reduced to a high-pitched ornamental tragedy. It’s Chandramukhi’s poise that lands credence to a universe of manufactured elegance.
With her comeback attempts failing at the box-office, the star-actor is now mostly busy judging dance shows, or attending award functions. Hindi cinema is not really known for being kind to ageing heroines. But there is a visible change taking place, with Sridevi, Kajol and Rani Mukerji still on the horizon. Out of the rank of the seniors, Sridevi’s turn in English Vinglish was remarkable because it imagined Dixit’s rival according to her age, far beyond her singing-dancing persona. Dixit, on the other hand, has chosen roles that still have her dancing, by hook or by crook.
Compared to the time when Dixit was in a dominant position, Hindi cinema has seen a considerable change in its grammar and fabric, with filmmakers trying newer narratives and bolder themes. It is important that Dixit sees her own self beyond the dancing persona, and releases the actor in her. There are ample writers and filmmakers who are aware of the untapped potential that Dixit holds in her, and if the actor sanctions herself to be free of the Bollywood tropes of a heroine, it would dawn a new beginning in her career.
If her extemporaneity and energy has managed to carry her through dull and duller films, she will do inconceivably better in sense and sensibility of the cinema of our age. After all, she knows how to make our hearts beat.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder)