Dance, dance, dance away

By Shoma A. Chatterji

The song and dance numbers began as fillers in cinema for an added boost to the entertainment quotient of the film. But slowly, dance evolved into a cultural statement, taking on an important character and sometimes, as a strategic move to create a turning point in the story, or even, to emphasise a quality in a given character.
Fulbright Fellow and academician Anugyan Nag whose fellowship was on Dance in Bombay Cinema: Dance films, Dancing bodies, Choreography and Choreographers writes: “Early Indian cinema showcased gestural and facial expressive movements and gradually evolved into a very sophisticated form with the introduction of the playback technology and the advancement of formal aesthetics of filmmaking.
Indian cinema cannot be imagined without a song-dance number, period. Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) was the first ever musical film in Indian cinema, written and directed by the dance maestro.
Chandralekha, originally made in Tamil, was released worldwide with 609 prints and was a widely viewed Hindi version too. It featured one of the most spectacularly shot dance numbers in the history of Indian cinema. Known as the ‘drum dance’, it used a huge number of drums making up a dance platform. Then came V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje with dance as the sole subject of a film targeted exclusively at the box office. The story was secondary to this dance opus.
The success of a Bollywood performer, especially of a heroine, is always intertwined with her dancing prowess. One of the most prominent examples is perhaps of the legendary Vyjayanthimala.
No history of Bollywood dance and choreography is ever complete without mentioning this powerhouse of a dancer and actress whose number Man dole mera tan dole in Nandlal Jaswantlalji’s 1954 film Nagin catapulted her to instant stardom.
While she became a screen goddess who never looked back since, capping the fag end of her Bollywood career with films like Jewel Thief, her dance moves in Lekh Tandon’s 1966 film Amrapali is a milestone. Her contemporary Waheed Rehman also was known for her dance. Well, who can forget the unconventionally bold and beautiful Rosie essayed by her in Guide and her passion for dance as she rose as a star in the film with a storyline ahead of its time in Hindi cinema.
The most outstanding dance that added meaning and drama to the film was the snake charmer dance performed only on music by Waheeda Rehman in this Vijay Anand film. Guide raises dance in Indian mainstream cinema to a high level of aesthetic excellence.
According to Nag, “A large number of films have been made on dance and dancers as the central protagonist of the narrative. The numerous films commonly referred to as the tawaif/courtesan films are remembered for their melodious music, lyrical poetry, exquisite costumes and above all the pleasure and spectacle of majestic dance sequences.
Some films had dance as a dramatic strategy to express a catalytic moment in the script. One can recall the thandava dance number performed by Sridevi in a film like 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 expression and body movements in an ambience of rain and thunder in Lamhe.
Hema Malini, another Bollywood heroine known for her classical dancing skills, would be remembered for the Sholay sequence in the villain’s den where she danced on broken glass shreds to the song Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
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 (in picture) created a different way of expressing maar dala every time it occurred.
Madhuri expressed maar dala through her facial expression and body language in 16 different ways in the song. It gave a new dimension to a kotha dance. “She is my best pupil ever who I had to deconstruct completely from her background in Indian classical styles to train her in fusion and Western numbers like hip-hop, salsa, ballroom, Indian folk styles, fusion, item numbers and any other dance style one can imagine,” Saroj Khan had said.

Item numbers

Item numbers in Bollywood films date back to cabaret queen Helen who left her fans gasping for more with numbers like Mungda, Piya tu, Mehbooba etc. But she was never termed an item girl.
But before Helen was Cuckoo Moray, also credited as Cuckoo or Cukoo, an Anglo-Indian dancer who had sizzled the Indian silver screen and even earned the epithet of rubber girl. She was the dancing queen of the 1940s and 1950s.
In the 1960s Helen’s name on film posters got more space than the heroine’s. Helen was effortless, she was a born item girl. She had class and her skimpy costumes never looked vulgar on-screen, yet there were oodles of sex appeal.
It was a time when 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 remembered till this day. Other dancers who became famous as sensuous dancers not always performed in cabaret style were Madhumati, Lakshmi Chhaya, Padma Khanna, Meena T and Jayashri T among others.
In the past years, leading female stars from Kareena Kapoor to Katrina Kaif through Priyanka Chopra vyed with each other to step into item shoes, offering more sizzle and sex than dance.
One example is Aishwarya Rai in Bunty Aur Bubbly in the famous kajarare kajarare tere kaale kaale naina sending the audience into a frenzy of catcalls pushing up the box office scales for a film that was almost floundering at the box office before the dance was added afterwards.
However, one wonders whether dance in Bollywood had been reduced to sheer gymnastics and acrobatics if reality dance shows are taken as an example.

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