Dancing in Indian cinema used to personify a lot more values than the half-hearted ‘sizzle and oomph’ performances do now, writes shoma a chatterji
ONE cannot even begin to imagine Indian cinema without a song-dance number. Uday Shankar&’s Kalpana (1948) was the first-ever, written and directed by the great dance maestro himself. It involved a slender storyline presented as a ballet with some fantasy about a dancer&’s dream of setting up his own academy. Kalpana was the germinating ground for a wide presentation and perpetuation of Shankar&’s distinctive style of dancing, known as Oriental Dance, and is said to have inspired SS Vasan&’s Chandralekha (1948). Chandralekha, originally made in Tamil, was released worldwide with 609 prints and inclusive of a widely watched Hindi version. It featured one of the most spectacularly shot dance numbers in the history of Indian cinema. Known as the drum dance, it used any number of drums as a platform with performances to music only. The instrumental piece had derivations of Arabian music, with drums predominating the soundtrack. Though body movements were slightly restricted, it remains a brilliantly choreographed, orchestrated, performed, shot and edited dance on film till today.
Dance as the sole subject of a commercial film targeted exclusively at the box office was V Shantaram&’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, wherein the story was created to hold the action together. Dance took away audience attention from the story and heightened the film&’s box office prospects. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje was not a good film in terms of aesthetics but Shantaram used loud, vivid and primary colours, heavy, ornate sets, costumes, jewellery and hairstyle of the two main dancers to attract the attention of a mass audience that either did not care for or know much about classical dance styles.
Noted Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna based dance numbers on the Lucknowi gharana but incorporated many leaps and jumps. This heralded the entry of the hybridisation of Hindustani classical styles to fit into the demands of the mass audience that is today called “fusion”.
The Chhau style of masked folk dance was used in Anurag Basu&’s Barffi (2012) as a communication bridge between two challenged people. It was employed as a dramatic strategy that lent specific meanings to the relationship. During the wedding scene, the boy uses the dance performed by an authentic performing group, from Purulia in West Bengal, to express his joy and happiness in celebrating the most precious moment of his life – his marriage to his ladylove, who can hardly understand the meaning of the word.
Dance as a dramatic strategy to express a catalytic moment in the script is rarely used in Indian films but a couple of rarities can be recalled in the thandava dance number performed by Sridevi in Chaalbaaz as her expression of rebellion against oppression and humiliation by her foster guardians and the “dance of rage” she executed with beautiful variations in face and body movements in Lamhe.
The most outstanding performance that added meaning and drama to the film was the snake-charmer dance performed only to music by Waheeda Rehman in Vijay Anand&’s Guide. It raised dance in Indian mainstream cinema to a high level of aesthetic excellence. The moves, focussed on varying performances of different styles and forms, were executed by Rosie not just to highlight her talent but also to stress on the socio-psychological role it plays in her life, her profession, her love, her changing moods and her relationships with the men and women she encountered in her rough journey.
Maar Dala, one of Madhuri Dixit&’s kotha numbers in Sanjay Leela Bhansali&’s Devdas, reaches beyond the performance, adding a different dimension to her love for Devdas. The line maar dala comes four times over the four stanzas of the song and choreographer Saroj Khan created a different way of expressing maar dala every time it occurred. Madhuri expressed maar dala through her facial expressions and body language in 16 different ways in the song. It gave a new dimension to a kotha dance.
Rarely does one find a theatrical Aaj Ki Raat Koi Aane Ko Hai, performed in Anamika (1973), with tales interwoven, or the mysterious undertones of Oh Haseena Zulfon Waali in Teesri Manzil (1966), or the looming helplessness Husn Ke Laakhon Rang in Johnny Mera Naam (1970) displays, when Padma Khanna performs a striptease.
Item numbers date back to cabaret queen Helen. who left fans gasping for more with numbers like Mungda, Piya tu, Mehbooba, etc. But she was never termed an item girl. In the 1960s, Helen&’s name on film posters got more space than the heroine&’s. She was effortless… she was a born item girl, had class and her skimpy costumes never looked vulgar onscreen… yet there were oodles of sex appeal.
A dance number by Bindu or Aruna Irani was like an insurance policy for the film&’s success. Bindu&’s Mera naam hai shabnam number in Kati Patang is still remembered. Other dancers who became famous as sensuous performers who not always performed in cabaret style were Madhumati, Lakshmi Chhaya, Padma Khanna, Meena T and Jayashri T, among others.
The Choli ke peechhey kya hai number was performed by Madhuri Dixit along with her nautanki partner Neena Gupta in Khalnayak. Saroj Khan won the 1993 Filmfare Award for Best
Choreography for this dance. It created a frenzy in the audience and anxiety in the music industry. The continued influence of Choli ke peechey was evidenced when it was performed by a little girl in celebration of the 47th Independence Day Parade in New York City in 1995.
Today, leading female stars from Kareena Kapoor to Katrina Kaif through to Priyanka Chopra are vye with each other to step into item shoes with more sizzle and oomph than dance.