Hollywood the ‘musical’ genre is often distinguished as a genre in itself. Whereas in Hindi cinema, musicality is a natural and recognised trope. Indian cinema, to an extent, has moved on from the larger-than-life dance sequences and has since presented real/relatable stories.
But more commonly, in both American and Indian cinemas, the musical aspect of the films often aid the narrative to a pivotal point or at least, highlight it. Whilst movies like In The Heights and Aaja Nachle are distinct from each other, cinema binds them more closely than you’d think.
Jon M Chu’s In the Heights is a love letter to New York City’s Washington Heights, set entirely in the area. It delves deeply into characters seeking a utopian life.
The place has been home since childhood to Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), an immigrant orphan from the Dominican Republic who dreams of swapping his cluttered grocery shop for his father’s old beachside bar in the country of his birth.
Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s love interest, also seeks to escape to downtown, pursue a career in fashion and break away from the strident local beauty salon where she cuts hair and paints nails.
Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) appears to be the ideal escapist figure: she’s a student at Stanford University, much to the pride of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), a local minicab operator whose own dreams are tied up in his daughter’s future success.
Despite her seemingly ‘perfect’ life, she feels like an outsider. During her homecoming and being reunited with her admirer Benny (Corey Hawkins), it emerges that her own goals have shifted.
The movie is a visually aesthetic and creative voice for the Latin-American people. Beyond the rhythmic dialogue exchanges, the film highlights the gritty struggles of immigration, racial disparity and financial difficulties the community has suffered over generations.
However, what unites the people are their stories of hardship. Even in times of grief, they sing and dance. As change occurs and the geopolitical circumstances of America change, the film delves deeply into the worries of the community. Consequently, the unity and clan-like group become forced to disperse and make life work for themselves.
There are various implications of how much the community is marginalised. With many of the characters struggling financially, it shows how much the lesser-affluent suffer in comparison to the rich. Another major struggle they have to overcome.
Almost every character in the film – even the background dancers – get a voice. Through music and dance, In The Heights provides an optimistic voice for the voiceless… By ensuring a spectacular watch.
Anil Mehta’s Aaja Nachle is an underrated masterpiece that was ahead of its time. For dance instructor Dia (Madhuri Dixit), New York City has been home for 11 years since she was ostracised by the people of her original home city – Shamli – as she ran away to marry a white, American photographer.
When she is informed her guru in India is dying, she rushes back to her home city to be by his side. On reaching there finds that he has passed away, leaving behind an endangered legacy: the Ajanta Theatre.
This theatre, where she learned to dance before emigrating, is in danger of being torn down by politicians, namely Raja Uday Singh (Akshaye Khanna). In an effort to save the theatre, Dia must prepare production in two months – performed by the same people of the city. These are a group of dysfunctional yet diverse individuals.
Interestingly, Nina’s character in In The Heights is like an outsider looking into her home, dreams and ambitions during her younger days. We see this explored through Diya’s character too, who feels like a stranger to people who once cheered for her when she returns back to Shamli. Both of these characters are strong women, who stand against all odds and use their power to do what they think is right.
In both movies, all supporting characters have a storyline explored. Be that of Najma (Divya Dutta) – Diya’s Friend in Aaja Nachle or Daniela – a sassy, vivacious salon lady. As such, every character is encapsulated by the music and dancing, making them essential parts of the films. There is also a sense of redemption for Najma and Daniela – where they support the principal cause of the movies.
Particularly, the lead ‘love interests’ are chivalrous, humble and supportive. The difference here is that if Usnavi gets his love then Mohan (Ranvir Shorey) – Diya’s former fiance – doesn’t. Regardless, he stands by her and believes in her. Both genders stand by each other in life endurance during their fight to survive.
Also, I find it fascinating in both works, monuments play instrumental characters. If In The Heights has Washington Bridge, then Aaja Nachle has the open theatre – Ajanta. Despite constantly threatened by change – they stand tall and untouched. In a way, they stand in solidarity with the characters in the film.
The singing and dancing in both movies are a weapon of survival. For the Washington Heights citizens, singing and performing is a euphemism and a way to encourage each other that there is solidarity, even in devastating times.
Perhaps the difference in Aaja Nachle is that musicality becomes a way for people to unite to fight a change that is about to be imposed on them. It becomes more of an external battle for them. Whereas in Jon M Chu’s film, the conflict is introspective – fighting one’s demons and relying on music to survive somehow.
Of course, the dance sequences are not just there to enrich cinematic appeal but they are the soul of both films. For instance, the ‘In The Heights’ title track shows everyone’s individual struggles in life – but yet they are united by their geographical home. Then in Aaja Nachle, the ‘Laila Majnu’ song is like the final battle for the Shamli citizens to save their artistic legacy and defeat commercialisation.
In many ways, both Bollywood and Hollywood films use music/dance to symbolise hope and unison against all hardships or threats. Whilst they may seem ‘theatrical’ but maybe it is this artistic approach that motivates and teach us to stand tall and support each other… No matter how tough life gets.