New York, NY —
Art house movie hits like Monsoon Wedding and Bride and Prejudice,, were intended for Western audiences. They featured some of the high energy music and dance numbers that you’d find in a pure Bollywood film. And they have spurred some New Yorkers—including WNYC’s Judith Kampfner---to explore Hindi cinema—and Bollywood dance styles---further. Here’s her report.
REPORTER: Soundtracks for Bollywood films are lavishly produced. But at an outdoor festival in Union Square, the sound system didn’t do justice to the pulsating energy on the stage. The troupe of young performers called Bollywoodaxion is mostly South Asian, with a few distinctly blond Westerners mixed in . They spin through their routines to hit songs from hindi movies. And the the lead couple have a flirty crowd pleaser.In the audience, Bollywood fans Mark and Lisa Shayen confess they are Jewish converts to the allure of Indian film choreography.
MARK: It seems to make sense when they break into song and dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would do the same thing. Lisa: its fantasy and escapist, the colors are very vibrant, the movements are very sensous. And it’s very passionate. Mark: They never kiss but I swear you think you saw a whole sex scene.
REPORTER: Mark and Lisa collect Bollywood DVD’s and rent others from a store in Jackson Heights. They’ve been studying the extra dance features on the DVD’s .
LISA: When this group was on, I was telling him, that if they have classes and I think that would be a great way to get exercise. And it would be wonderful.
REPORTER: The troupe Bollywoodaxion has spun off from Pooja Narang’s Bollywood dance classes.
In a beginners class at a studio in the garment district, star pupil Bhavana Nincheerla demonstrates in the front line.
NINCHEERLA: Bollywood incorporates everything – it has salsa in it , it has basic classical Indian, it started out with a lot of that—and then has become ,techno, pop – anything you want it’s probably in there.
REPORTER: The girl next to her says it helps to know the traditional origins
GIRL: Anything like this, when you are doing this beat and keeping the beat and keeping the beat with your hip, that’s a very Indian step, you’ll see that in a lot of folk dances. You’ll see a lot of spins, the really fast spins come from Kathak in North India; south Indian spins tend to be a lot slower, much more footwork than you see in these.
REPORTER: The function of dance in the history of Bollywood was to drive the narrative says Prof Gyan Prakash of Princeton University. The dance sequences also allowed the lead characters to be less inhibited.
PRAKASH: Hindi cinema for a long time has had this prohibition on the display of kissing. Directors have worked around this prohibition by showing highly suggestive scenes through various kinds of clichéd metaphors. The wet sari, like the wet t-shirt routine, has been a long staple of Hindi cinema. The choreographers would often concoct a scene where there’s suddenly a rain, or the heroine gets wet in a fountain—and that was one way of displaying the woman’s body. And this could be the heroine, they could have their cake and eat it too, the heroine would retain her sense of propriety and yet display her body.
REPORTER: Increasingly, he says, there’s been a liberation of sexual energy through the dance numbers. Prakash loves a scene choreographed to a song called “Let’s Disco” in a 2004 hit Kal Ho Nah Ho, which is set entirely in New York.
PRAKASH: You have the heroine who is shown slightly tipsy and she does this disco number and the look on her face is really like a post coital look. And the audience doesn’t see that as odd, even though she is a heroine, because she is a particular type of situation where she’s drunk, where she’s trying to get attention from her man—and then it is allowed.
REPORTER: It’s ironic that at the time when Bombay changed from it’s colonial name in 1995 to the Indian name Mumbai, the content of the films became more Westernized. Prakash says the dances in Bollywood films became more costly and spectacular during the 1990’s. Now, as in a 2002 romantic comedy called Khabihi Kushi Khabi Gham the dance is a celebration of consumer culture. There’s a sequence in an upscale London street.
PRAKASH: The camera first pans on Big Ben and immediately fixes on Dolce and Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren …the sequence is also shot like a music video or an advertising film. For example one time, the hero, the first time he appears, he appears in this fancy car. The whole sequence is actually shot like a car ad.
REPORTER: Despite all the attention to consumerism the focus is still on the performers. Special effects aren’t as important as in Hollywood. Actors are given intense dance coaching. Pooja Narang tells her dance students that its not enough to execute the steps, they have to work on the drama.
NARANG: You basically have to over exaggerate. You are acting in a song. Bollywood films are so popular because of the expressions they show when they are dancing.
REPORTER: Pooja Narang recommends dvd’s of the superhits to her students–Kal Ho Na Ho, and Khabhi Kushi Khabhi Gham and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, respectively Tomorrow will never Come, Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness and the Brave Heart Takes the Bride. And the students all go a few blocks uptown to the basement of the Virgin Megastore in Times Square where you’re always guaranteed to catch the biggest Bollywood films the day they open in India.
For WNYC, I’m Judith Kampfner.