Occupation: Assistant Dance Choreographer

Raju Murugan smiles as he watches himself dance. “This is the song that made me popular,” he tells me, as the high energy ‘Nakku mukka’ plays out on the computer. “There, that’s me; there’s also a shot of me dressed as a woman; in most songs, I dance to the left of the hero, so people identify me easily.” The song fades away, and I ask if he feels thrilled everytime he watches himself on screen. “Of course! Also, watching the songs in the theatre, I learn where and how to improve,” says Raju, who has danced/ choreographed 400 songs in the last five years he’s been in the movie industry.

But the 30-year-old didn’t always set out to be a dancer. “When I was in 12th Standard, I read about Raju Sundaram’s dance-group in Ananda Vikatan; inspired, I decided I too wanted to be a dancer.” Raju’s family however asked him to defer his dream until he got a degree. And so, after graduation, he trained for five years under dance director Sridhar, and then applied for a dancer card. “It’s very hard to get a union card,” says Raju. “There is stiff competition from nearly 1,000 applicants; and after performing three different styles in front of 15 dance masters, only 25 are chosen!”

Raju, now an assistant choreographer, works with five dance masters, and is waiting for a good break before he applies for a ‘master’ card. “Dancing in movies is as much fun as it’s hard work. Take group dancing — it’s like being back in college, we have a great time travelling, rehearsing, seeing new places…New Zealand was an unforgettable trip. I miss those days, since my job now is to get everyone —including the heroes — to dance.”

“Getting a chance in a movie, be it as a dancer or choreographer is very hard; and once you’re there,” says Raju, “you’ve got to dance in the rain and sun, barefoot, and sometimes, bare-bodied too.” You can only do it if you love it, he tells me, adding that getting tanned is sometimes the least of their worries considering how risky it is to perform in difficult outdoor locations. “As an assistant, I have to do the moves several times, till the camera angles are set. The hero comes into the scene only after that,” Raju explains.

Folk and free styles dances are very ‘in’ now, and each song, I’m told, takes on average, three or four days to shoot, while big-budget ones can even stretch to two weeks. “And it’s all over in five minutes in the movie,” he laughs.

Married to Geeta — who’s expecting their first baby next month — Raju is busy working on seven or eight songs every month. The money, he says, is good, and the union ensures the dancers are compensated for extras, such as shaving their head for a shoot. “But the job is very demanding, and calls for a lot of stamina; there are days when I’m working round the clock! So I always eat healthy, and workout when I’m in Chennai; but wherever I go, I do floor exercises to stay flexible.”

Raju plays me another song where he does swift, complicated ‘knee movements’ on a tar road, for the interlude. “It took the group four days to get that right,” he smiles. The interlude lasts just 45 seconds on screen; but the knees must hurt, I think, for much, much longer…

‘You’ve got to dance in the rain and sun, barefoot, and sometimes, bare-bodied too. You can only do it if you love it’