Bodily Fluid: The Movement of Bollywood Dance from Body to Body
I wrote this essay for a book called tiltpauseshift: Dance Ecologies in India, published by Gati Dance Forum. I'm sharing it because Saroj Khan's passing made me remember it.
The Movement of Bollywood Dance from Body to Body
For long, the song-and-dance elements of Indian cinema were seen as guilty pleasures, not to mention proof of its artistic inferiority. Even today, when this approach is being reassessed, it is not uncommon to hear the dismissive term ‘dancing around trees’. It is presented as an emblem of popular Hindi cinema’s infantile silliness, apparently on account of both un-realism and coyness about sex, disallowed by censorship. Into present time, directors of the new wave of Bollywood ‘indies’ declare their squeamishness with the song-and-dance routine, and talk about how they work around it in their films as it is a necessity of the market rather than an artistic preference. Their solutions are often presented as bringing songs into the film within the purview of logic. The chief criticism of the song-and-dance routine is rooted in the idea that linearity and realism are superior qualities of cinema, and song and dance disrupt linearity of plot while being completely unrealistic.
But popular Hindi cinema does not favour realism as an aesthetic. Rather, it functions through a number of simultaneous symbolic languages. Bollywood dance as the amalgamative, energetic mixture of folk, classical, Indian and international dance forms into a cinematic item, it is now known, is one of these symbolic languages. Dance occurs in films in varied ways and contexts. Sometimes it is a folksy performance watched by benign urban visitors; sometimes a private reverie where someone, usually a woman, fantasizes about forthcoming love and desire, frolicking in nature; sometimes a private romantic/erotic play between lovers. It occurs in a variety of dance styles, producing a popular version of everything from Bharatanatyam to Cha Cha Cha.
To comprehensively examine the archive of Bollywood dance is a giant undertaking and my effort in this essay is not to be comprehensive, but to trace one kind of Bollywood dance to show something fundamental about the function of dance in Bollywood and about the nature of popular Hindi cinema’s relationship with bodies. I will trace some developments within a particular item of dance often found in Hindi films: the staged dance performance which gained popularity in the 1940s and transformed in various ways until the 1990s, after which it remains vestigially in films as the item number – unless, of course, it is a film centred on dance, such as Taal or ABCD.
Perhaps capitalizing on playback-singing technology to expand the repertoire of dance entertainment, the staged dance was a staple of films of the 1940s and 1950s. It was almost always presented as a tableau of some kind – combining backdrops and props with stylized group formations to communicate a social argument. A notable example is the song ‘Door hato ai duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai’ (‘Away with you, people of this world, India belongs to us’) from the 1942 super-hit Kismat. Apparently, this was a song to support the war effort of the ruling colonial power, Britain, in World War II against German and Japanese enemies, as indicated by the lines: ‘Shuru hua hai jung tumhara, jaag utho Hindustani/Tum na kisike aage jhukna, German ho ya Japani’ (‘Your war has begun now, arise o Indian/Bend before no one, neither Japanese nor German’). This overt message of the colonially supportive Indian disguised another Indian, the nationalist in-the-making. A map of India recurred through the pattern on the stage curtain, through a backdrop and through the formation of dancers in a clear V-shape to mimic the map of India through their bodies. In the final stanza of the song a woman dressed as ‘Mother India’ appears, almost held aloft by a bank of trumpet music. The men and women, along with the lyrics of the song, represent several ‘types’ of Indians, familiar to us today as community types who symbolize the Indian secularist imagery of unity in diversity (Hindu–Muslim–Sikh–Isai/Christian). These bodies merge with the bodies of soldiers who are meant to fight the British war, but with raised fists, clearly coding the dance as a performance about India’s struggle for independence. The audience joins the chorus, joins this nationalist or colonial Indian identity – as it chooses, perhaps, or perhaps even both.
This kind of staged performance watched by a live audience via a filmed audience – from a double distance, in a sense – frequently concerned itself with the idea of Indianness. How to reconcile the idea of a traditional, ethnically inflected India whose village roots were being glorified via Gandhianism, with the simultaneous nationalist idea of a ‘modern, secular’, religiously inflected India?
These tensions provided a basis for the staged dance items, which took place in the form of an argument between these two impulses: tradition vs. modernity, rootedness vs. deracination, urban vs. rural, vernacular vs. English-speaking. Very often they played out through stories of romance and relationships and ideal women, sometimes men. The narratives frequently debated the merits of ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ women on the basis of dress, literacy, urbanization and, also, erotic willingness. The narratives were laced with an anxiety about women’s sexuality within the world of Indian progress, education and mobility, which was addressed in different ways through these dances.
A striking example is the song ‘Hum hain Bharat ki naari, sabse nyaari’ (‘We are the women of India, the best of all women’) from the 1952 film Mr Sampat (based on R.K. Narayan’s novel of the same name; it was also made in Tamil under the title Miss Malini). The song begins with a row of urban women declaring themselves Indian women, the best of all, and carrying out a hand movement used to ward off the evil eye when you praise someone – in this case themselves, and by extension modern Indian women viewers perhaps. In subsequent stanzas of the song, they perform in graduation robes, declaring themselves hard-working and educated, ‘B.A. Pass’, dedicated to improving themselves. But alas, they declare, traditional India does not appreciate them. For, when they marry they meet with the mother-in-law’s scorn.
Cue mothers-in-law: a row of women dressed as old-fashioned hags with crooked sticks come forth in a hobbling step, dismissing these women, these ‘padhi-likhi titli’ (educated butterflies) who will never be able to do hard domestic labour like grinding wheat. Enter a row of women who can, wearing ‘filmi rural’ dress – short ghagra skirts and half-saris – and presenting themselves as demure.
They are met by a row of men dressed in suits. They scold the ‘traditional’ women, calling them ‘Stupid! Idiot! Illiterate!’ How can these uneducated girls make good wives for modern Indian men? Further, declares the song, with such a wife, ‘ab to romance of the life, khatam ho gaye saare’ (‘that puts paid to romance in life’).
In one deft verse, the dance plays out all the tensions of changing Indian society as a cultural battle of womanhood being fought by women, even while staging women’s desire for progress as the necessary condition for her being a modern Indian man’s helpmate. And yet, the ambiguities and layering of the staged dance make this not so simple. The message is undercut by the arrogance of the men’s dance-steps.
In the next stanza, the educated women reappear dressed as nurses. Now, they state how their education is really for looking after people – ‘hum seva karne ko, dekho aayi’ (‘look, we are here to serve’). They are followed by a group of men bearing stethoscopes round their necks who try to romance them: ‘Nurse, you make my heart beat faster.’ At this point, oddly enough, the song finishes, with the nurse-women never having to respond to the doctors’ rising blood pressure.
But in this verse the tension of the educated woman being selfish, unable to look after others as per her domestic role, is smoothly subsumed (as it was in society) into a noble ‘looking after’ profession. The two bodies – of the woman who serves and the woman who deserves – are merged into a woman who does both, somewhat.
Most importantly, the nature of the women’s dance is entirely unornamental. The steps are brisk, near-military, with no bodily excess. The body is composed, contained. The woman in these dances seeking education, modernity, mobility, does so by boiling out the sexual, by presenting a precise, desexualized progressive womanhood, a delimited mobility. Men, already set up as arrogant in the earlier part of the set-piece, yet again present themselves as loose-limbed and shallow. The women’s pursuits, on the other hand, are self-improvement and social good, not pleasure: mobility justified by nobility.
The men, stiff and arrogant or shallow and louche, become represented as unmoored, deracinated sensualists, and are at the same time absolved of the weight of carrying forward moral tradition in their bodies, a task which falls squarely on female shoulders. In other staged songs, though, this idea of westernized masculinity as ludicrous and feminized is also explored. In ‘Aana meri jaan, Sunday ke Sunday’ from the film Shehnai, a male dancer dressed as Charlie Chaplin, mimicking the staccato movements of silent film speed, tries to woo a traditional rural woman. He offers to take her to Paris, London and other fleshpots to dance and romance, and, moreover, to eat non-vegetarian food (‘murgi ke ande’/eggs). Here, the rural woman rejects him firmly, presenting the contrasting masculinity of her muscular husband who chases after him with a stick. Even as he sidles off – as he is, naturally, a coward – he is rescued by a woman in jodhpurs who arrives bearing a gun, masterfully saying ‘oh my dear, come come come.’ The idea presented in this dance – where the man is weak and comical while the woman is firm and masculine – is, of course, that in modernity, men were emasculated by emancipated women. And yet, in the cheeriness of their dance, they seem somewhat made for each other, even if they don’t quite fit the ideal image of feminine and masculine, allowing you to see it as you will.
The staged performance became a way to iterate the normative Indian body, especially in terms of gender, though also of location and, by extension, class and caste. Even as this was a very developed, didactic thread of Hindi film dances, other threads existed in the same film that too might be staged performances but did not play out didactic messages. Rather, their unadulterated purpose was pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, the film discussed above, Mr. Sampat (which, interestingly, also explores the tensions between print’s noble cerebral qualities and cinema’s more misleading bodily qualities), features performances that include a generically Islamicate court dance as well as a Kathak-style courtesanal dance. These often featured only the minor characters. But they might also feature the protagonists, as in the song ‘Shola jo bhadke’ from the 1951 film Albela, where there is an unproblematized dance of love and seduction between a woman and a man in a Hawaiian setting. The dance is sinuous, love is joy, the body is free – a cosmopolitan enjoyment of material and bodily pleasures played out and approved by the protagonists of the film.
A more interesting version of this performance was the queer staged dance. In these dances, male characters were often played by women and vice versa. A famous song, ‘O gore gore, o banke chhore’, from the 1957 film Samadhi, has the female and male parts all played by female actors. In another film, Half-Ticket (1962), there is a song with the actor Pran dressed as a man and actor Kishore Kumar dressed as a woman. At other times men dress as women and women as men – for instance, the popular ‘Kajra mohabbat wala, akhiyon mein aisa dala’ (‘Oh that kohl of love that changed my eyes’), which featured the actor Biswajeet as a woman and the actress Babita as a man, with her/him seducing him/her. The backdrop against which this song takes place is of the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar – monuments of the national capital, but also monuments of a bygone Mughal era. Both actors are dressed in Islamicate dress – Biswajeet in a gharara as a respectable Muslim woman, and Babita as a Pathan. The underlying connotation of homosexuality, an urban legend that accrues to the figure of the Pathan, is also threaded through this queer performance.
While presented quite routinely as a part of the entertainment in earlier films, soon enough this cross-dressing dance would appear under some pretext or excuse – while hiding from criminals, the police or persecutors of some kind. Sometimes it would even be that the dancing partners were adversaries, carrying out their conflict covertly and in plain sight.
It would not be an over-reading to see this as a presentation of queerness, its histories and its conditions through dance without ever stating it as such – analogous to the presentation of Indian independence and nationalism under the pretext of supporting the war effort in Kismat. In other words, even while dance was used to serve a didactic function it simultaneously provided spectators with sensory pleasures – whether performed as a social necessity, an intimate pleasure or even a sign of decadence. While the context might inflect the dance, the dance itself provided pure pleasure – guilty, disingenuous or simple – to the viewers.
The presence of these diverse dancing bodies is historically important. In her book, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Anna Morcom traces the disappearance of the skilled professional and often caste-based, hereditary dance performers, who inhabited a liminal world of acceptance though not respectability. The anti-nautch purity movements of the nineteenth century decimated the profession of many of these communities – nats, tawaifs/courtesans, transgender dancers, ghazal singers – conflating them with sex work, and pushing to have them outlawed and stigmatized. In doing this they robbed these communities of the idea of work, but also sanitized the world of Indian dance and music, limiting it to classical and faux-classical forms. Much of this was contingent on women not performing any more as a mark of purification, for the weight of the purity movements rested on the form of the female performer. One publication from the Punjab Purity Association quotes the social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen as saying that the nautch-girl was a
hideous woman . . . hell in her eyes. In her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell. Her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or wilful victims that fall in her way. Her blandishments are India's ruin. Alas! her smile is India’s death.
Even as the feudal zamindari economy and older royal houses crumbled, these movements marked the scattering of entire communities and also pleasure pastimes of common as well as aristocratic people. But these bodies and people and forms were drawn into the Parsi theatre and then the film industry over time, especially with Kathak dancers and tawaifs teaching and performing dances, and musicians performing in song recordings. There are known examples like that of Jaddan Bai who worked as a composer and film producer. And there are several unknown names who worked in this industry, ghosts of another time and stage, peopling the studios of Bollywood, ventriloquizing their craft through the bodies of film actors and dance performances to an audience that had absorbed these ideas of morality, that consumed them with covert pleasure, wrapped up in the larger, normative narratives and bodies of the Hindi film.
Even while centralized narratives subsumed these bodies, erasing the memory of this world of dance and sexual existence, the unruly narrative style of the Hindi film contained many of these worlds as a demotic: the mujra dancer who sometimes played a character, the cross-dressing dance, the transgender performance.
In this way film dance both established an ideal body and destabilized it with pleasurable counter-bodies, allowing both to coexist – some might say uneasily, others might say fluidly. These diverse threads, while remaining in the Hindi film in one form or the other, slowly ceased to be standard elements, however. As films began to focus more on urban love stories and family dramas, staying more within a particular class, the contexts for these dance forms decreased. Even as they slowly receded, becoming more occasional, they were nevertheless consolidated – most remarkably in the body of one woman, the most iconic of Indian film dancers: Helen.
Helen Richardson, of Burmese–Anglo-Indian descent, started her dancing career in Hindi films in 1951 as a chorus and occasional solo dancer. But she came to prominence in 1957 with the noir film Howrah Bridge, in a Chinese-style cabaret-item song, ‘Mera naam Chin-Chin Chu.’ Her unmistakeable lightness, her carefree and somewhat western movements, coupled with her ‘foreign’ – light-skinned, light-eyed, auburn-haired – appearance made her represent an idea of womanhood that was decidedly not Indian. From then, through the 1960s and until the mid-1970s, Helen featured in over 500 films, sometimes playing the part of a moll or a vamp, but mostly only featuring in one stand-out dance sequence.
It was as if Helen signified dance itself in Hindi films. She also took all the elements of earlier staged performances – setting, dress, style, flavour – and unified them in her very being, as well as the nature of the dance. Almost all Helen’s dance items were performed dances before a public, but not from the safe distance of the proscenium stage. Rather, the dance, usually a cabaret in a club setting, took place in the midst of the audience or at the same level as the audience. It might be blithe, brittle, frisky, sensual, frankly sexual or exploitatively sexual; the costume was revealing, but beyond that, highly glamorous, and moreover, so exaggerated as to be beyond body and in fact, practically, an installation.
Helen has performed traditional-seeming dances like Kathak and folk; she has been a belly-dancer, a go-go girl, a Moulin Rouge-style chorus girl, a dancer from a Brazilian carnival and much more. In each film her outfit, make-up, hair and dancing style were different, with a strongly self-aware stylistic presentation. She wore giant feathers, tiaras or Chiquita Banana-style fruit headdress, lined her eyes with diamantes, painted her lips in excessively pastel shades. Her outfits were made of satin, gauze, fur, metal, studded with gems – layered flamenco skirts, diaphanous harem pants, shiny bell-bottoms.
Jerry Pinto, in his book The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, has analysed Helen as a figure symbolizing the sexualization of minority Christian women, as well as her bodily demeaning and association with the world of decadence and corruption, symbolized by the club, in conjunction with the weak, inferior male Christian figure. While this is undoubtedly an operational reading, the hallmark of Hindi cinema’s densely packed symbolic languages is that they offer parallel, coexisting readings. Hence, Helen also played out, in about a decade-long career, almost every kind of marginal body as well as the heady consumption of international pleasures in the very material quality of her presence.
Helen was all things – the stage and the dance, in the body of the dancer. In each film she presented this idea with a different stylistic cast – elaborate and consistent. Sometimes she died in a film; sometimes she never appeared again, having played out her performance. But she returned in the next film, with a completely different aesthetic. To this extent, she functioned much in the way that pandals function during big religious festivals like Ganpati western India and Durga Puja in the East – representing the tableaux of current events, pleasures and aesthetics, and locating the deity amidst these; casting and recasting the deity through contemporary happenings and sensations; remixing them into the repertoire of the Indian; passing them on through bodily movement.
It is often said of Helen that her dancing was ‘sexy but not vulgar’, unlike that of her imitators, or rather successors, like Jayashree T., Padma Khanna and others. While this is debatable, it was nevertheless a widely held notion among middle-class urban viewers who freely admitted to their enjoyment of a Helen dance. I would argue that Helen helped create this feeling of sexy as pleasurable, not vulgar, through the elaborate construction of her dance persona, foregrounding skill, aesthetics and the dance as construct. The performance became an inorganic thing, not something intrinsic to the body at some level, but something anyone could don or learn. In a sense, dance and its meanings became separated from the body through this constantly altering projection, thus also offering the idea of bodily mobility as opposed to a permanently determined, fallen body.
The Helen dance also created a comfort level with the idea of dance, and a more sexualized one at that, for pure pleasure. While it still had the prophylactic of an audience within the film that watched it, providing the real-life audience with an excuse to consume these pleasures, the arrival of the dancer in the midst of that audience allowed for a shooting style that sometimes eliminated the filmic audience and, through close-ups, brought her to the midst of the live audience, underlining their direct consumption of these pleasures, habituating them to this kind of body, generating a cinematic bodily contact otherwise forbidden, or at least unfamiliar, with a physical sexiness, a free female body.
Helen’s most prominent phase was in the era of the romantic film where urban middle-class men and women, not usually separated by social identity, often fell in love in a location away from home or through chance encounters on roads as groups of girls frolicking on bicycles met brash men in cars. The presence of Helen certainly managed some of the anxieties around this kind of romantic choice, which is, after all, also sexual choice. It offered a clean separation between the sexualized woman and the romantically eroticized but monogamous heroine figure.
This is also why a Helen dance always took place in a confined space, like the club, and her social as well as emotional mobility was constrained in return for the bodily flamboyance and sexual freedom she emanated. In contrast, the heroine of the film was often to be found singing in anticipation of adulthood through love and desire, but in innocent pastoral settings. Her womanhood was awakened by the arrival of a man in a garden or on a simple mountain road, and romance was then carried out in manicured gardens, nature shaped by human hands. This often took place as another popular item of the Hindi film dance catalogue – the picnic song – where the hero arrived during a girls’ picnic and inserted himself into the group. Eventually the hero and heroine disported against a backdrop of her friends, recalling the lila of Krishna and Radha in the forest, surrounded by gopis.
In a sense, then, anxieties around the ‘modern’ Indian woman dissipated out of the body of the heroine/respectable Indian woman and amalgamated around the dancing body of Helen – vamp, minority figure, sexual, international, unattached. In fact, when she did get attached, she usually met with death – separating the idea of sexual freedom from monogamy. On the one hand, this certainly laid out a dichotomy of sex which is only bodily, in the form of the vamp-dancer, and sex which is of the soul, a higher, noble kind, attached to love and carried out only after marriage, in the form of the heroine. The heroine’s erotic desire was responsive in relation to a man, rather than independent and active in relation to her own body, as with Helen.
On the other hand, by habituating audiences to such a physical presence, Helen set the stage for a new type of heroine to come in the 1970s whose body was displayed for pleasure, in bikinis or dance performances that could be termed cabaret (this is always a sexual term in India). Several ghostly bodies of dance released themselves through Helen into the bodies of future heroines like Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, who went on to have pre-marital sex on screen (and very obviously in their personal lives, living with their paramours openly). The decline of Helen’s career and the rise of these heroines happened in a cross-fade – with Helen and Zeenat Aman meeting in the 1978 film Don. Helen did the famous ‘yeh mera dil’ dance with Amitabh Bacchan, only to die at the end of it. But Zeenat Aman goes on living and in fact impersonates a dancer in the film symbolically living on as a figure, while the figure of Helen began to fade from films. Helen finally retired in 1983.
After the end of the Helen era, however, dance itself ceased to have a strong presence in Hindi films, and the staged dance, practically not at all. In part, women themselves struggled to find a strong space in film narratives, which cohered more and more around the male protagonist’s quests. It was not for a few years that dance once again rose to significance in the Hindi film; and this time the genie of dance slipped out of the bottle and manifested in the body of a heroine figure – Madhuri Dixit. It is not that there had not been dancing stars before. Vyjayanthimala was one of these in the 1950s. But a ‘Vyjayanthimala dance’ was not part of the expected repertoire of the Hindi film, as it went on to become with Madhuri Dixit.
Madhuri Dixit was trained in Kathak and entered Hindi films in the 1980s, but did not quite make a mark until 1988. When she did, it was with a dance. Playing Mohini – the avatar taken by Vishnu to lure the asuras during the amrit manthan, symbolic of the most alluring of women – she danced on stage to the song ‘Ek, do, teen’ (‘One, two, three’). The song is watched by a group composed of solely working-class men, whom Mohini teases with raunchy steps offset by her mischievous, innocently sexy face.
This dance marks a turning point in the history of Hindi film dance for several reasons. For the first time it presented a clear heroine figure in a dance that is chiefly sexy, and presented sexiness with a robust, bodily series of steps. From this film on, a Madhuri Dixit film meant that there had to be a Madhuri Dixit dance item in the film – and that it would involve some kind of stylized aesthetic but highly pared down, built to showcase Madhuri Dixit’s special brand of Monroesque, mischievous, girl-woman sexiness along with her great skill. The songs were full of double meanings and suggestions, and winks and teasing steps: ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ with its Rajasthani flavour, ‘Humko, aaj kal hai intezar’ with its Koli fisherwoman style, ‘Chane ke khet mein’ and ‘Didi tera dewar deewana’ with their Uttar Pradesh folk roots – all of them featured much heaving of breasts, sticking out of bottoms and sinuous hip movements.
It is not, again, as if these elements had not existed earlier in Bollywood dance. But for the first time they were brought together in one body as a definable genre – what we now call Bollywood dance, where the hips were so important. In the presence of a Madhuri item, its aesthetic styling, its presentation on a stage or in a party setting, you could sense also the ghost of Helen Richardson inhabiting the frame of Madhuri Dixit.
But this was not the only ghostly body present in the dance. There was another, all too real, all too significant body – that of Saroj Khan. Saroj Khan was born Nirmala, in a poor, Partition-era family. She began working in films at the age of 3 to support her family, doing bit roles and moving on to parts as a chorus dancer. She can be spotted in a boyish outfit in one of the group dances, ironically, of Howrah Bridge, Helen’s breakout film. She later shifted to choreography. Saroj Khan is credited with having brought Indian bhava, and aspects of Kathak and Indian folk back into the dance repertoire, and investing these with a contemporary, open sexiness never before seen in dances by heroines. The sexuality of her dances was very bodily, very frank and not dependent on a hero’s touch alone.
But she also has the historic credit for being the person because of whom the popular Filmfare award for choreography was instated – and when she went up to receive this award on stage, dancing the steps she had composed for Madhuri Dixit for ‘Ek do teen’, she became the first choreographer to be present before the audience’s eyes, asserting that the body of the dancing heroine contained also the body of the choreographer. In doing this she gathered the ghosts of many forgotten worlds of dance – which had found their way into the darkened corners of Bollywood studios as dance teachers, musicians and extras – into her being, bringing these worlds to a professional place again.
Innumerable photographs exist of Saroj Khan and Madhuri Dixit together, both striking identical poses, making explicit that what dances on screen is the body of Madhuri Dixit with the ghostly body of Saroj Khan, erstwhile chorus girl, film extra/junior artist, the most marginal of figures of the screen in a Hindi film. In one sense this breaks apart the idea of Helen into two – the dancer and the dance, both embodied, separately and simultaneously. It also communicates the idea of Bollywood dance as a teachable object, breaking through the screen to reveal what went into creating those Bollywood affects, the idea that Bollywood dreams held a graspable reality which could make the dreams graspable too.
What consolidated this idea was Saroj Khan’s other notable contribution to the repertoire of Hindi film dance – the signature step. Saroj Khan’s choreography through the 1990s was marked by a highly identifiable signature step which was repeated along with the refrain of the song, something she developed in her work with Madhuri Dixit. From Helen to Saroj Khan, the Bollywood dance became a cinematic object. With these discrete steps, Saroj Khan offered a way for the ghosts of dancing filmi bodies to enter the bodies of real people not just in symbolic ways.
In her book Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only, Neepa Mazumdar interviews Girish Karnad about Fearless Nadia, the stunt star of the 1930s. He talks of how half the pleasure of watching Nadia’s films lay in being able to imitate the fights and stunts afterwards. In this way cinema culture became physical culture. In this way a kind of bodily contact happened between cinema figure and audience, which altered the bodily experience of the viewer when outside the cinema hall. The cinema hall was in that sense a transgressive physical experience where one took in diverse bodies into one’s own and remixed them with one’s own physical language, reframing respectable bodies and mobility within and via the body.
So it was that Saroj Khan’s choreography and its signature step became easily imitatable. Since they were embodied in the figure of the heroine and not the vamp, performing these dances, for middle-class and all other classes of viewers, offered what I would call a respectable ambiguity. Significantly, the male star Saroj Khan also worked with considerably was Govinda, who brought in a formalized street dancing aspect and persona to the Hindi film screen.
These trends in Hindi film dance swiftly found themselves established as the standard of choreography on the one hand, but even more swiftly spilled off the screen into real life. The performance of item dances at weddings, the growth of a Bollywood dance class industry for those who wanted to sample the pleasures of formalized dance without the intensity of classical art, grew from the signature step – but also, one might also venture to say, from the joining of body and soul, sex and spirit that the Saroj Khan–Madhuri Dixit pairing brought to us.
Eventually, this ghostly movement of bodies from one to the other in a kind of positive, non-scary version of ‘The Shining’ translated into a literal mobility of bodies. India’s earliest dance competition show on television was ‘Boogie Woogie’, an open competition that anyone could try to enter, which showcased a nascent dance craze developing in India. It was followed by ‘Nach Baliye’ in 2005, where real-life couples competed through choreographed dance; and ‘Jhalak Dikhlaja’ in 2006, based on the BBC show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, which paired a choreographer with a celebrity. These shows created an appetite for dance contests, but also a literacy with dance styles and cinema choreography’s use of costume, lighting and dance for viewers.
With this base, it was the 2009 show ‘Dance India Dance’ that significantly altered the world of Bollywood dance, and brought in that literal bodily mobility. ‘Dance India Dance’ was an open competition where talent was found in different cities – quite like ‘Indian Idol’ did for singers. Anyone who could dance could compete – and they did. The judges on the show were Bollywood choreographers and they worked with the dancers to refine their styles. ‘Dance India Dance’ brought to prominence the explosion of street dance that had been taking place among working-class urban populations as well as the alumni of Bollywood dance academies. It also brought forward the dance troupe – groups of people, often of poorer backgrounds, who had honed their performances in community spaces around religious festivals like Ganpati, side by side with classically trained dancers.
In a way, every dance element that had made up Hindi film dance was available on screen as a deconstructed Bollywood dance, and reconstructed before our eyes. It also made the careers of some troupes and some individual dancers. Famous among these is Raghav Juyal or Cockroaxz, who perfected a personal fusion style involving slow motion walking steps which was described as an amalgamation of being ‘powerful like a crocodile and creepy like a cockroach’. Cockroaxz won season 3 of ‘Dance India Dance’. He made his film debut with a small, unsuccessful film, Sonali Cable, in 2014, but he remains a big youth icon for his story of success.
In 2013, Remo D’Souza, Bollywood choreographer and judge on the show ‘Dance India Dance’, made his first feature film. Titled ABCD (Anybody Can Dance), the film replayed the story of ‘Dance India Dance’-style shows – it followed the shaky fortunes, reversals and eventual victory of a troupe of street dancers from a Mumbai slum, headed by their maverick teacher, Prabhudeva. Many of the dancers from ‘Dance India Dance’ featured in this film. Produced by a prestigious studio, UTV–Disney, the film was a giant hit. More importantly, it was the first time in perhaps forty years that such a diversity of dancing bodies was featured on the A-list Indian screen – fat, thin, dark-skinned, Muslim, low-caste, male, female and, especially, working class – on par in a troupe. The film had no known faces among the dancers, which made it all the more a powerful story of success. It also had no discernible hero and heroine figures – though, without a doubt, men played a more prominent part in the narrative.
As screen travelled into life and life travelled back onto screen, a literal movement of bodies that do not make up the mainstream idea of the uber-body – heterosexual, upper caste and class, gym-perfect to international standards – was made possible through dance. This literal movement can also be found in a completely different space: that of a troupe of transgender performers called The Dancing Queens whose public performances are slowly gaining general popularity outside LGBTQI spaces. Abhina, the founder of the troupe, spoke movingly at a performance in Mumbai in 2016, about her transition from male to female. ‘Bollywood dance gave me confidence in my body. To dance before other people and to be appreciated for something of my body made a very big difference to me.’ In a poignant moment of joinage, she performed on the same stage with her mother, who had supported her transition and who had also been, before, a traditional Lavni (a courtesanal folk form of Maharashtra) dancer. On stage, then, were the many physical, social, cultural and emotional movements of bodies held by Bollywood dance.
The story of the Bollywood staged dance is a story of remixed bodies, each transforming the other, infecting each other with the body of dance. They offer us also a way to look at the history of Bollywood, not only as a history of the normative national but of marginalized pleasure, pushing its way back to centrestage, bringing with it other marginalized selves. Perhaps it also offers us a way to reconceptualize narratives of the national.
This is not to convey a single-toned account of under-class triumph. Bollywood’s constant churn establishes and destabilizes simultaneously, as I have noted earlier in this essay.
The coda of the story is bittersweet: in 2015, the sequel to ABCD came out, as ABCD2. It no longer starred unknown dance perfomers and their varied, unprocessed bodies. Instead, the central roles had a hero and heroine, played respectively by Varun Dhawan and Shraddha Kapoor, children of film families, their bodies gym-reconstituted and elite. In these bodies, they subsumed the several bodies that had come before, of working-class dancers and their diverse bodily narratives, into a modern, consumer-friendly processed body and gendered narrative.
It is another matter that Cockroaxz also played a significant, though supporting role in the film. We will have to wait and see if some meaning is made of that, which changes the centre of the stage.
Morcom, Anna, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Delhi: Hachette India, 2014.
Majumdar, Neepa, Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s–1950s, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Pinto, Jerry, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006.
Tuli, Nidhi, The Saroj Khan Story (documentary film), 2015.