Industry watchers are waiting to see how Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film is received.

Shubhra Gupta

As she sat across Karan Johar, resplendent in red, brown highlights glinting off her perfectly coiffed, artfully curled locks, it was clear that this was Bollywood’s last great diva talking. No one after Madhuri Dixit has had quite her combination of emoting and dancing skills, and the ability to reach out and connect, and make the audience fall in love with her, all over again.

During the

Koffee with Karan

interlude last Sunday, which we were told was her first major TV outing in the past six years, Madhuri showed flashes of the ‘on-screen’ persona that we remember so fondly: a turn of the head, a fling of the hair, and yes, that trademark dazzling smile which made strong men go week in the knees.

Her strong

ghaati

Maharashtrian accent is still very much in evidence, but she’s begun rolling her ‘r’s , and the ‘halfs’ ( two-and-a-half becomes two-and-a-hayf) — the first sign of getting assimilated into the US, the land she adopted when she married an Indian surgeon based there. Her responses were well thought out, and measured, just the way they used to sound in earlier interviews. Not for Madhuri the impetuosity and informality of her contemporaries; on Karan’s chat show too, she came across as friendly yet reserved, warm yet dignified. But she also gave the feeling that she had done some growing up. And she transmitted that without fearing that this would make her appear older and wiser, traditionally anathema for heroines who trade on being young and silly.

She spoke about her life in the US as wife and mom (she has two children), which she sees as being perfectly compatible with her life in Mumbai, as an actress still very much in demand.

Launch power

For the past several months, she has been in and out of Mumbai, wrapping up her new movie

Aaja Nachle

, directed by ace cinematographer Anil Mehta, and produced by Yashraj Films. Just the fact that the country’s top production house chose Madhuri as a lead heroine shows that she still has the power to green-light a movie. Her co-stars, Konkona Sen and Kunal Kapoor, are new entrants into the Yashraj camp and Bollywood-style razzmatazz. As the title suggests,

Aaja Nachle

focuses on Madhuri’s famed

latkas

and

jhatkas

, made contemporary for a newer audience, as well as for older fans. The film will be released towards the end of the year.

Her last major part was in 2002, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s

Devdas

, where she competed for screen space with two of Bollywood’s reigning deities, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, and came out trumps. In a lavish dance sequence, where Bhansali pits Madhuri against the much younger Aishwarya, you can see the latter has the slimmer waist, but the former’s moves, which come from within, puts her all the way up there with the dancing greats. You can see that she is not just following the choreographer’s directions which can turn dance numbers into mere callisthenic exercises; she is in the moment, going with the flow, with all her being.

Right from her forgotten first film, Rajshri Films’

Abodh

, you could see that there was something about Madhuri. A spark that was transmitted in the dark, something only top stars have. This is an ability you have to be born with, it cannot be taught in acting institutes. That film sank, both at the box office, and from public memory, and Madhuri may have sunk into oblivion too, if it hadn’t been for N. Chandra’s

Tezaab

, which paired her with her ‘top favourite co-star’ Anil Kapoor (she revealed this on Karan’s show; a surprise because it was widely thought that this exalted position was Shah Rukh’s, for whom she also had very good things to say).

Up, up and away

The 1988 movie rocketed to super-hit status because of its theme (underdog winning against inimical forces), hero Anil Kapoor who was desperate to break out of the he-can-only-ape-Amitabh tag, and heroine Madhuri’s rousing dance number, Ek do teen.

After

Tezaab

, she became red hot. She worked with all the top producers and directors, and did blockbuster films with the three Khans, a sure-fire way of announcing her top-of-the-pop status in Bollywood. Closest rival Sridevi also did very successful films with top heroes, and she had legions of fans within the industry for her dancing and comic skills, but at some point Madhuri overtook her, never to look back again. With Shah Rukh, her most successful film was

Dil Toh Pagal Hai

(1995). With Aamir, it was

Dil

(1990). With Anil, she did a string of hit movies:

Ram Lakhan

and

Parinda

— both in 1989, and

Beta

in 1992. But it was with Salman and the Rajshris, who gave her that crucial break, she did

Hum Aapke Hain Kaun

(1994), a movie which re-wrote the rules of Bollywood and romance.

At the height of her popularity, she also did a couple of off-beat films which showcased her acting abilities. Prakash Jha’s

Mrityudand

, a grim-yet-uplifting tale of the state of women in Bihar, and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja, an all-women film in which she chewed up the scenery in a small role, were proof that she could do more than just sing and dance around the trees, the baptism of fire all heroines have to go through before they can graduate to more ‘serious’ roles.

Industry watchers are waiting to see how her comeback in

Aaja Nachle

is received. Leading ladies, after matrimony, are generally not considered to be the objects of fantasy they used to be. Only Kajol, post her marriage to Ajay Devgan, has managed to break the mould, in

Fanaa

. If Madhuri breaks through the barrier as well, the opportunities for older, experienced actresses, who could now just be peaking, will be limitless.

For that, we’ll have to wait till October.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 29, 2007)
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