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The new mobsters

Addictive fun: A flash mob in Visakhapatnam. Photo: K.R. Deepak  

It's a busy weekend at a mall with a sea of people flowing in and out, oblivious to what's in store. Suddenly a girl breaks away from the crowd and begins dancing to a popular song. You think the poor soul has lost her mind but moments later a boy joins her. Before you know it a big group of people is moving in perfect sync, mesmerising everyone around. Congratulations, you've just witnessed a flash mob — they come, they boogie and they vanish just as quickly, but not without conquering hearts.

Although flash mobs are a common sight abroad, India has been dancing to the tunes of this latest trend with unbarred enthusiasm only recently. But the infectious fun has caught up with thousands, especially in metros like Delhi and Mumbai.

Not easy being a mob

The participants seem to appear as if from nowhere and scatter just as quickly. The idea behind this flash performance is more often than not public entertainment. Take, for instance, the Mumbai CST flash mob organised by Shonan Kothari, who decided she wanted to take part in something similar after having seen one in London.

The idea was just to do something never done before and have fun. And so one message to a friend created a ripple effect and before she knew it, there were more than 300 people raring to go. But if you thought getting a few hundred people to come together, much less dance in sync, is a piece of cake, think again.

From arranging practice batches and paying for the practice space to getting permissions from authorities, it was a Herculean task.

“Coordinating choreography, participation and practices can be a nightmare. And the bigger challenge is getting permissions from Indian authorities — police, railway authority, BMC — Shonan was the one who did all the spadework,” says Mehak Chaddha, who works for a radio channel in Mumbai and was one of the participants in the Mumbai flash mob.

One can only imagine the expression on the faces of police personnel who were asked if Shonan could get nearly 200 people together at a recent terror attack site and one of the busiest hubs of Mumbai — to dance. Surprisingly, she was allowed to go ahead. And there, in the midst of CST station, Shonan and her mob danced. And became an Internet sensation instantaneously.

When it comes to getting jiggy with it, how can the Indian audience just stand by and watch? “We were very excited about surprising the CST commuters, so the actual performance was super thrilling. However, in India this concept was so new at the time (I think we were the first citizen flash mob) that the commuters around us thought we were performers for a Bollywood film! They mobbed us, and restricted some of our outlandish steps,” Mehak adds.

A mob gone awry

Better to be mobbed than being booed off, which is what happened to the first ever Delhi flash mob. It was over in a flash, to be succinct. While Mumbaikars danced their way into everyone's hearts, the Delhi-wallahs danced right into the police's hands. The group attempted a performance at Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj but after a damp response, headed to Janpath to strut their stuff. Little did they anticipate trouble from cops and complaints from the shopkeepers for “disrupting” businesses.

The bitter lesson learnt: Permissions, permissions. On a happier note, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai also staged their first successful citizen flash mobs a few months back in city malls.

After the metro crowds showed their love for mob performances, it was time for smaller towns and cities to prove their mettle. While mobs at Coimbatore's Brookefields Shopping Mall, Mangalore's Panambur beach and Ahmedabad's Gulmohar Mall wowed onlookers, enthusiasts in a few other cities decided to step it up a notch.

For instance, a Pune-based group called Parivartan, which tries to spread political and social awareness, danced in February this year at E-square Mall to appeal to Punekars to vote in the upcoming elections. “Our dancers and members of Parivartan were 40 people in all and we created formations that said ‘Vote Pune, Vote' to convey our message,” explains Swapnil More, the choreographer. The spirit of those involved becomes apparent when Swapnil adds that he didn't charge a penny to choreograph the dance. “They had a fantastic idea and it was intended for the good of people; I couldn't and wouldn't ask them for money,” he says.

In Solapur, the Rotary Club organised a flash mob at Park Chowk, one of the busiest squares in the city, in January to celebrate a Polio-free India. “We announced on social media websites and the radio that we are preparing for a special event that would need people's participation. We didn't mention what it was or when and where it would be held. But we received overwhelming response from both adults and kids. They practised for close to two weeks and their performance received a lot of media coverage,” reveals Sandeep Jhavery, past secretary of the Rotary Club.

Down south, Akhil Mahesh, Ajith Patnaik and their team Jitterbug came together with a group of Vizag's entrepreneurs called Round Table Vikings in January for a campaign against drug abuse at Beach Road. The mob had already performed twice but this was their first for a cause.

Joining the bandwagon were Hyderabad, Noida and Kochi. A Hyderabad-based NGO danced to promote a “Do not litter” campaign in the All India Exhibition Ground, Nampally in February. And in January, in Noida's sector 18, participants grabbed a broom each for their performance on the road — not as a prop but a tool to spread the message – “Keep your city clean”. Yet another unique cause was spearheaded by Kochi youngsters in Oberon Mall; they danced with the slogan “Not Keralites, Not Tamilians, We are all Indians. No Hate Mate.”

And in Vadodara, Young Indians, a part of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), danced for a healthier India on April 15, hoping to engage the youth to help implement a healthy lifestyle and eating habits, a modest yet important objective.

Asia also witnessed its first gay flash mob at Mumbai's Marine Drive. Sonal Gyani, a member of the group Yaariyan, which organised the mob, says “We had a quick and entertaining performance with slogans like ‘I'm gay, it's ok.' The mob also helped us get supporters for the gay pride march held two days later,” says Sonal.

India is never far behind in exploring a new rage to effect change for a social or political cause. Aditi Khot, a member of Parivartan, agrees wholeheartedly.

“If there's a new way of doing some good, then why not go for it? We've been working for the last three years by distributing pamphlets or speaking publicly in college campuses. But who wants to bore the public with slogans and marches? We realised flash mobs were a much better way of grabbing eyeballs,” she says.

Making money off it

But where there's a popular trend du jour that grabs eyeballs, how can businesses be left far behind? Thus riding the wave came along smart mobs, which claim to be flash mobs but are, in fact, PR activities by companies. Such smart mobs were recently organised by Nokia in four major cities to advertise its new phone. Needless to say, the promo not only attracted huge crowds but underlined the product's punch line: Make everyday amazing.

But is dancing all that flash mobs do?

“Definitely not. A flash mob assembles suddenly, performs a seemingly pointless act, and then disperses, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression. So they could even be a big bunch of singers!” explains Mehak.

The citizens of Ludhiana definitely broke the mould. The motley group conducted a freeze mob (which doesn't dance, instead draws attention to a different activity) at the Punjab Agricultural University near Thapar Hall, where people suddenly began reading, all at once. The novel idea was to promote reading.

Who knows, a few months down the line, we may see mobs promoting the songs of Bollywood's next big flick. And if your interest in arranging a mob of your own has been piqued, Mehak has a couple of tips.

“Don't stand out; try to appear like anyone else in the crowd.At CST, we just mingled with the crowd, bought tickets and pretended to board trains. It gives an extra punch of surprise. Get your permissions in place and get to know at least some people you'd be dancing with,” she suggests.

Singing or dancing, PR or pure entertainment, flash mobs are here to stay. They may be the perfect dose of fun and optimism that India so desperately needs. Here's a chance to dance with strangers and make other strangers smile. Could it get any better?

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 4:34:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-new-mobsters/article3531679.ece

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