This performance isn’t even on some of his official filmographies, and that’s a shame. He is very very good in this movie, and he plays the main antagonist, not a small role. Also, it’s the only time he shared the screen with Madhuri Dixit.
This was part of Yash Raj Film’s “Year of Flops” (name tm me). They had a formula, they built their studio on that formula, they expanded their studio on that formula, and then that formula failed them. So they built up a new formula.
Back in the distant past of 2007, Yash Raj’s formula was good songs, name stars, big cast, and global look. This was the “Yash Raj Film” which the world first became familiar with, the one that was their global calling card as they dominated the international market. Hum-Tum, Dhoom, Saathiya, Bunty Aur Babli, Salaam Namaste, Veer-Zaara, Dhoom 2, hit after hit after hit. And then the crash, Ta Ra Rum Pum Pum, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Laaga Chunari Main Daag, Tashan, and this movie, all within a year. Chak De India saved the studio, and then Bachne Ae Haseeno followed it up, and Aditya Chopra was spooked enough to come back to directing and dash off Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Which gained YRF a little time to get back on its feet (along with selling off their DVD warehouse at half price, a huge bonus for me!), and come up with a new formula. Now they have small grounded within India films every few months, and one major expensive big budget release a year with international appeal.
(Such a great poster! Why didn’t people like it?)
The sad thing is, that year of flops had a bunch of real gems in it. It wasn’t the fault of the films, it was the fault of the times they were in, people were just tired of the formula. Tashan is straight up brilliant, JBJ is one of my secret pleasures, and even Laaga Chunari Main Daag has some good bits. Ta Ra Rum Pum Pum is terrible both morally and creatively and should be burned to the ground and the earth where it fell salted so that nothing can ever rise again from the ashes.
This movie is a real pity, because it is perhaps the best come back movie an actress has ever been offered. It is a wonderful role that combines everything that is special about Madhuri with everything that has changed about her in her years away. And surrounds her with new and old co-stars, letting her show us her flexibility in collaboration with others. And it’s also just a straight up good story that manages to make a woman the center without either excluding romance or making it the main point of her journey.
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Maybe part of the problem with the film is that it made Madhuri into a radically different heroine, but then was too scared to make it super obvious. We start with Madhuri in her New York studio. She is tough and strong and confident and successful and independent. And then she gets a phone call from India and flashes back to her teenage village self, ambitious and loved to dance, fell in love with a white photographer who was visiting the village and eloped with him. And then divorced him and now is a single Mom to their daughter.
What is not clearly said is that Madhuri essentially married the white man in order to get out of the village, and then left the marriage when she got what she wanted from him. Not like that was consciously what was happening, but we see how she is so excited about dancing and performing, already more interested in it than any other part of her life, and how her parents don’t understand. How the trap is closing down on her, she is about to be married and forced into life as a wife and mother and nothing else. And that is, at least partly, why she “fell in love” with the one stranger who has ever come to their tiny village. Someone who feels like a way out, a breath of fresh air, a promise of a better life. And also not said is part of the reason he “fell in love” with her was that she was the exotic perfect dancing village belle, someone different from anyone else he had met, who confidently showed him her village and local foods and dance and so on.
This is a romance that is very familiar. People who mistake fascination with something “different” for true love. Who see in the other person a representation of what they need (rebellion, escape, security, whatever) and confuse that for actually wanting the person rather than what they represent. Madhuri marrying to escape and then escaping that marriage when it stopped working is a unique triumphal story.
But it is not this story. The film wants Madhuri to be a single mother living in the US who used to be a doted on daughter in a small town in India. And the simplest quickest way to do it is to have her elope from the small town with an American. But the film doesn’t want to dig into the fact that the character of Madhuri clearly made this choice because she ALSO saw it as a simple quick way to get what she wanted. Maybe not consciously, but subconsciously. This was not a girl introduced dreaming of an arranged marriage and life forever in the same town where she was born. And this is not a grown woman sighing and crying over a failed marriage. This is a girl who was already looking for a way out, and a woman who is happy with the life she had built and never really wanted the husband.
That central blurriness, refusal to look directly at what they are showing, is the major flaw in the film. Because everything else is perfect. Madhuri gets a phone call from India, her mentor who kept the theater program in their small town going all these years had died, and his partner/lover (let’s be real here, that is clearly who The Doctor is) is calling on Madhuri to come back and save the theater.
This is not a classical fancy intellectual theater. This is a theater that put on shows the common people enjoyed, that taught the kids of the town if they wanted to learn no matter their skill set, that was fun and free and joyful. This is the same theater program that exists in small towns around the world, that one wonderfully eccentric teacher who generations of children learned the basics from and had their eyes opened ever so slightly to the world of drama.
And, just like in small towns every where, when that one teacher dies, there is the risk that the whole theater will die with him. And the legitimate question in the community if that would be a bad thing. Maybe it really was just about this one teacher, maybe it is time to move on and find a new thing for the kids to do?
This is where Akshaye Khanna comes in. At first he is introduced as the “villain”. The powerful Raja turned local politician who has the authority to sanction the sale of the land the theater is own and the building of a mall. Madhuri goes to him all set for a fight, and in another worse movie he would be the obvious villain. But in this one, he isn’t. He is a reasonable intelligent man, who like Madhuri has been outside of the village and come back. He just wants what is best for the community as it is, not based on nostalgia for what it was. If Madhuri can put together a sustainable theater program to keep the theater going, fine. If she can’t, then clearly it is not what the people want and he will agree to the mall plan.
Madhuri’s next step is to visit the other “villain”, Irrfan Khan, the businessman planning to build the mall. Irrfan is twice a villain, he also married Madhuri’s best friend from childhood Divya Dutta, he appears to be that looming threat of the arranged marriage that Madhuri wanted to escape from. But, in fact, he is twice innocent. He doesn’t want to destroy the theater because he hates theaters, he wants to build a mall because it is a business opportunity for him. He did everything right, he got permissions and permits and plans, and now at the last minute Akshaye is putting the project on hold. For Irrfan, Madhuri and Akshaye are the villains destroying his dreams. And for Divya, Irrfan is the knight in shining armor who rescued her. She shared the blame for Madhuri’s elopement, her family was furious with her and expected Irrfan to break the engagement. But instead he rescued her from her angry family, and gave her a happy life. She is standing by him now not out of fear, but out of gratitude and love.
That is how this whole film goes, every villain becomes an ally. Or at least, a potential ally in some way. It’s one of the most subtle NRI lessons I’ve seen on film, Madhuri comes in with a vision of this small town of narrow-minded people, and learns that they are just people. The world has kept moving without her in it and she needs to figure out how she can help them get what they want, not what she wants.
Which brings me to Kunal and Konkona, our young couple. They are strikingly NOT like the older generation. They don’t need to leave this small town to be happy, they are happy here. Konkona has a supportive brother who wants her to be strong and educated at the good local college. Her future is not restricted the way Madhuri’s was. And Kunal is a local tough and college student with some minor power in the community. Unlike Irrfan, he doesn’t need to scrap and struggle to succeed against Akshaye’s entrenched powers, Akshaye has used his power to create an open society where Kunal could be successful.
But there is something besides success and opportunities, there is the extra happiness in life, and that is what Madhuri quickly realizes she can provide. Kunal and Konkona are not their happiest selves. Nor are Madhuri’s landlord and his wife, or Irrfan and Divya, or Jugal Hansraj the bored young professional, or anyone else who agrees to work in her theater. They don’t need to leave the village, to run away to New York like she did, their lives aren’t that bad. But they need a little bit of something special, something extra. Some magic in their life.
The point isn’t the play itself, it is the changes it can make in people’s lives. Madhuri’s character goes on a journey from saving the theater for the theater itself, to remembering the real reason to save it, what it brings to the whole community. Konkona learns to be confident and beautiful (instead of the angry fighter she used to be). Kunal learns to break away from his bully crowd and open up to new experiences, and sees her in a new light. They fall in love. Madhuri’s landlord learns to be brave and adventurous and surprises his wife for once when she sees him opening night. Their marriage is happier. And most wonderfully (to me) is Divya, who steps in at the last minute to play a leading role, and learns to remember who she was before marriage, before Madhuri left and she was “shamed”. And who gains the reward of Irrfan confessing that he had forgotten what a wonderful “jewel” he had married, that he will give up all the malls in the world if it will let his wife perform like that.
(Look at 1:30 through 2:30 for Irrfan Khan reaction shots of “wait, that’s my wife?!?!?”)
The theater is a public place, but these are not public changes. Madhuri isn’t putting on a show to change people’s minds, or influence local politics. She wants a young couple to secretly hold hands in the back row. A husband and wife to come together more closely in their own home. A young woman to come into her own womanly power and a young man to discover true love. That is the purpose of theater in this town, this town where everything (once you take off the NRI blinders) is pretty much okay. It’s to make it just a little bit better.
And Madhuri gets her own special benefit too. Her life in New York was pretty much okay, she didn’t miss her husband, she loved her daughter, she loved her work. But in the final shot of the film we see her “little bit better”, finishing rehearsal to discover Akshaye surprising her with a cup of coffee and a smile. The final unusual female character touch, a woman who doesn’t really need a man but also won’t reject it if one is on offer.
(Also, can you spot Nawazuddin in an uncredited early role?)