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Dancing to narrative needs and audience preferences

Hindi film dances mediate between India’s colonial and post-colonial histories and its future global ambitions, even as they cater to an increasingly trans-national audience, writes Sangita Shresthova in ‘Is It All About Hips? Around the World with Bollywood Dance’ (www.sagepublications.com). She observes that, unlike other dance styles like hip-hop or salsa, which all began with live performance and later migrated to film, Bollywood dance is by definition a mediated dance phenomenon enabled by media technologies. “Inherently hybrid, it has always drawn upon a wide variety of Indian and non-Indian dance movements for its content. The sources of the movement elements used in the choreography of these dances for films have evolved in response to changing narrative needs and audience preferences.”

Describing Bollywood dance, as it is practised today, as a unique film-based global dance phenomenon, the author takes the reader to locations around the world, such as Mumbai, Kathmandu, and Los Angeles. For instance, in LA, she finds that the rising popularity of live Bollywood dance, which is fuelled by Hindi film consumption among Indian-Americans, now assumes new meanings as Bollywood enters Hollywood’s imaginary space. “At the NDM studios, dancers and teachers cater to a clientele who are predominantly of Indian origin, whilst also striving to be hired by Hollywood productions. Nostalgic definitions of Indianness are held by the diaspora clash with present-day Orientalised preconceptions of India and Bollywood.”

Indianness portrayal

Tugged between ‘spectacularised portrayals of Indianness’ and ‘romanticised, exaggerated, and kitsch portrayals of Bollywood,’ what get continually get shaped are the choreographic choices made by dancers, ‘in ways intended to ensure their adherence to those definitions of Indianness that are currently dominant in their diasporic communities.’

At times, as the author notes, the dancers themselves will edit out elements they deem morally inappropriate from contemporary Hindi film dance sequences that they otherwise stage; and in other instances, they may mix into their Hindi film dance choreographies borrowed movements from the classical Indian dance vocabulary in an effort to affirm Bollywood dance as Indian dance. While Vancouver students express ‘a strong preference for dances full of Indian classical dance gestures, expressions, and movements,’ the Mumbai students love ‘punches, jumps, and shimmies set to Western techno remixes.’

Right or wrong ‘Bollywood’ – which replaced ‘Hindi films’ somewhere in the early 1990s – is now a worldwide brand, declares the foreword by Kabir Bedi, ‘probably the only Bollywood actor who refused to sing or dance.’ Confessing that he loves watching and listening to great Bollywood songs, he dismisses the critics who question the logic of fifteen different locations, with fifteen costume changes, all in one song. “For me, Bollywood songs and dances rock, and all those who create them are real rock stars,” announces Bedi. In his view, Indian film industry is unique for being the only film industry in the world that gives a nation almost all its pop music and its modern dance forms.

New bodies

In a section titled ‘Mediated bodies of Bollywood dance,’ the book recounts how Yash Chopra’s film ‘Dil To Pagal Hai’ (1997), a love story set in a dance school, was a turning point for Hindi film dance, with Shiamak Davar giving a ‘new and fresh look’ to the choreography. How so? “Before that there were dancers who were not in shape. It was a very down-market, raw kind of dance. Suddenly people saw fit bodies on screen and suddenly people were noticing the dancers behind the stars. Whereas earlier they saw the star and they didn’t look at the dance,” is Chopra-speak, captured in the book.

Another quote that offers a historical perspective is of Manoj, a dancer in SDIPA (Shiamak Davar’s Institute for the Performing Arts), thus: “In the 50s, they used to move their neck and eyes (in the films). In the 60s and 70s, they used small lyrical movements with their hands and maybe they are sitting in the garden. In the 1980s with Mithun Chakraborty, came the whole disco thing, but people were not glamorous…”

On the sets, the author finds blonde dancers in the front rows behind the stars, while the Indian dancers fill up the background. Over the recent past, Hindi film chorus lines have been witnessing the arrival of foreign – mostly white, blonde, and female – dancers, one learns. “The first waves of these dancers came from countries of the former Soviet Union. Many foreign dancers rotated in and out of India every six months to avoid visa complications… Today, several of these dancers, who initially arrived on short-term contracts, settled more permanently in Mumbai.”

Nadya, a Russian dancer trained in ballet in Moscow, mentioned in the book as an example, arrived in the city three years ago and works on film shoots almost every day. “The money is good. She and her friends now rent an apartment in Bombay where she feels she gets to enjoy a lifestyle that would not have been possible for her in Russia. She has danced in over a hundred Hindi films but says that she ‘is not learning much in terms of dance.’”

Well-researched study about what are generally relegated as item numbers.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 5:00:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/dancing-to-narrative-needs-and-audience-preferences/article2635523.ece

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