The first comprehensive book on Bollywood dance culture, Is it All About Hips? Traces Bollywood dances as they are interpreted, created, and produced in three locations: Mumbai (India), Kathmandu (Nepal), and Los Angeles (USA).
In this pioneering work, Sangita Shresthova brings alive the world of Bollywood dance through the chronicling and analyses of live performances, dance classes, film spectatorship, and personal narratives.
Sangita Shresthova is currently the Research Director of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project (MAPP) at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA. She is a dancer and media artist who holds a PhD from the Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA. She earned an Msc degree from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program where she focused on Hindi film dance.
Sangita’s work has been presented in academic and creative venues around the world including the Other Festival (Chennai), the EBS International Documentary Festival (Seoul), and the American Dance Festival (Durham, NC). Her writing has appeared in academic publications like Global Bollywood, an edited volume on Hindi Cinema. Sangita was the Programming Director of the Prague Bollywood Festival, an annual event she helped found nine years ago.
Sangita studied Bharata Natyam under Malathi Srinivasan in Chennai, as well as Charya Nritya (Nepalese Dance), Kalaripayat (South Indian martial arts), and contemporary dance techniques. She was a guest choreographer for the Constanza Macras/DorkyPark production “Big in Bombay.” Her documentary titled, “Dancing Kathmandu” (2007), was a curtain raiser at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. Sangita continues to explore the possibilities of Indian dance, film, and new media through BollynatyamTM, the company she founded in 2004.
Bollywood is unique in world cinema. What differentiates its films from those around the world is the way it integrates songs and dances into stories, whatever its genre-romance, drama, comedy, action, even horror. It is a convention which has never been questioned by anyone other than some Westernised Indian critics who think the Sun rises in Hollywood. Song and dance is expected, nay demanded, by hundreds of millions of fans across the world. Impatient for Bollywood’s highly entertaining razzmatazz. Its creation of sublime, emotional or foot-stomping escapism is unmatched anywhere in the world.
For decades, Bollywood was known as the “the Hindi film industry,” since the language spoken by most of the actors was Hindi. It could not be called Indian cinema because that would have included films in eight regional languages, with six different scripts, seen by over a billion people. However, all Indian films follow the song-and-dance format of Bollywood, where it all began in the 1930s with the introduction of sound in films. Somewhere in the early 1990s, the word “Bollywood” replaced “Hindi films” and since then it has spread fast. It outraged old-fashioned purists who thought it sounded like a bad rip-off of “Hollywood.” Right or wrong, “Bollywood” is now a worldwide brand, growing in popularity day by day. British royalty, taxi drivers in Rome, or hair dressers in New York, all want to know more about Bollywood, even if they have not seen any of its films. And Bollywood dance routines have been its most successful export ever, with dance classes in Kent, fitness routines in Los Angeles, and “Jai ho” being performed at the Oscars. Sangita Shresthova’s book, Is It All About Hips? Around the world with Bollywood Dance, highlights this phenomenon brilliantly.
India, the biggest film industry in the world—a thousand film a year or more, with almost six songs per film—creates thousands of melodies every year, generally filmed with stars. That is a prodigious amount of singing and dancing! As a singer, no one has been more prolific than Bollywood’s Lata Mangeskar, “the nightingale of India,” who has recorded over 40,000 songs over her fifty-year career, a Guinness World Record unlikely ever to be surpassed. Indian films are unique in another remarkable way: it is the only film industry in the world that gives a nation almost all its pop music and its modern dance forms.
Sangita Shresthova, a classical dancer herself, has been an ardent advocate of Bollywood for years. I first met her when she invited me to the Prague Bollywood Festival, which she organised brilliantly in 2007, showcasing some of my Bollywood films, and, as a special honor, my epic Italian TV series, “Sandokan,” She then moved to California, but did lose her focus. This brilliant and entertaining book is the product of Sangita Shresthova’s twin passion—Bollywood and dance. It illuminates the unique phenomenon that defines Bollywood films, it’s spectacular song-and-dance routines, while giving us a fascinating insight into its incredible international impact.
It is ironic that I have been asked to write this foreword since I am probably the only Bollywood actor who refused to sing or dance. (Psst! I did try it in a few films, but it was not my scene.) But I am delighted to write this because Sangita has written such a fine book. But, I confess, there is another reason. I love watching and listening to great Bollywood songs. When theater lights dim and Bollywood song-and-dance numbers begin, I feel as if I am in heaven. Never mind the logic of fifteen different locations, with fifteen costume changes, all in one song. For me, Bollywood songs and dance rock, and all those who create them are real rock stars. Sangita’s book tells us the whole story as never before.
“So why are you studying Bollywood dance?” Shabin Khan, a young Hindi film dance director looks at me with undisguised curiosity. We are sitting in her private room in a rehearsal space located in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai, India. The room opens into a dance studio, where an all-female group of dancers practices dance movements in front of a mirror. Shabina Khan has just retuned from leading them through a movement sequence in their rehearsal for the Hindi film Ek Vivaah Aisa Bhi (2008). I smile and take a breadth as I prepare to answer her question.
Over the course of my research, I encountered this question often. Sometimes it was filled with genuine curiosity, sometimes it was inflected with amusement, sometimes it was filled with excitement, and sometimes, it even bordered on mild disdain .
My decision to dedicate years of my life to understanding Bollywood dance was not inevitable. But over the years, it became a logical outcome of the overlapping events and circumstances that defined my personal and professional interests, which eventually shaped the contours of my interest in Bollywood dance.
My first introduction to Hindi cinema took place many years ago at my cousin’s pirated video rental store in Kathmandu (Nepal) where I would, on occasion, watch anything that was playing on the VCR. Most of the time, it was some Hindi movie. As the plots and stars slipped by me, it was the dances that were etched in my memory. As a product of a Czech-Nepali mixed marriage, my childhood was defined by a constant, at times painful, cultural negotiation. Born in an era that preceded the current more tolerant approaches to interculturalism, my life was littered with constant reminders of my outsider status in both Nepali and Czech societies. Looking back, I think it was in watching Hindi film songs and dancers that a world of cultural mixing first welcomed me into its midst. In the remorseless blending of movement sources and costume styles, I found a messy, yet appealing, reflection of my own scattered cultural identity.
My desire to dance led me to the study modern dance (at Princeton University) and the South Indian dance, Bharat Natyam. Though I dabbled with Nepali classical dance forms (including the Buddhist Tantric practice of Charya Nritya), I felt a need for more structure, complexity, and, perhaps even, discipline. After many years of Bharat Natyam training, I completed my Arangetram under the strict instruction of Smt Malathi Srinivasan in Chennai, India, and went on to dance with several Indian contemporary dance companies.
But I was never only a dancer. I was always fascinated by film (any other media). Particularly in non-Western contexts. I began to explore the power of media in reproductive health strategies through the Development Studies Institute at London School of Economics (LSE). It was, however, the Master’s program in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and because of Professor Henry Jenkins that I finally got the courage to articulate my interest in the intersections between media and dance. Given my specialization and background in South Asian popular culture, Bollywood dance was the next logical next step. It was not long before I began asking questions about dances in Hindi films and their live performance at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA under the guidance of Professor David Gere. On a more hands-on tangent, I became a co-founder of the Prague Bollywood Festival and forayed into film direction with Dancing Kathmandu (2007), a documentary about the dance and globalization in Nepal.
This is the story of how I chose to research Bollywood dance. I have made every effort to allow the readers to encounter Bollywood dance in film and performance in this book. But Bollywood dance is, by definition, a live and filmed movement style that cannot always be adequately described on paper. Respecting this, I have created a companion web page located at www.books.bollynatyam.com to guide readers on this journey.
Two silhouetted female figures in Indian ethnic clothing face each other. They have their chests in time with the music. Their veiled faces mirror one another’s to communicate a shared secret. The camera cuts to seat Rajasthani folk musicians tuning their instruments. Then, another woman enters. Face obscured, she is dressed in a bright orange backless blouse and knee-lengths full skirt. She balances two stacked water pots on her head and walks toward the camera. Every four beats she swings her hips. The camera lingers on her chest and bare midriff, exaggerating her hip movements. A turbaned flute player urges her on. When the woman finally lifts her veil, she looks into the camera playfully, but breaks her gaze at the last minute, to look away. She entices her audience to keep watching. These are the opening moments of the “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?” (What is behind the blouse?) Song-and-dance sequence from the Hindi film Khalnayak (1993).
Suddenly, the screen goes black and stage lights burst into action. An uncertain twitter ripples through the audience of the Royal Opera House in London. Then, out of the wings, a veiled figure emerges and a gasp of pleasant surprise runs through the audience. The heroine from Khalnayak has come alive on stage! Complete in movement and costume, she brings a film dance performance to life. Without missing a beat, she gestures and spins, and executes intricate rhythm-based combinations alongside her sexually suggestive gyrations. She is clearly a very skilled dancer. Her playful skips and innocent coyness undercut the sexual innuendo of the lyrics. The memory of the film lingers in the air as this alive performance sends the audience into an enthusiastic ovation. She is Kavitha Kaur, a dancer who lives in London, and she has just finished performing “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?” at Frame by Frame, the Bollywood dance symposium in the UK. During the course of Frame by Frame –organised in 2009 by Akademi, a foundation in the UK that supports Indian dance—soloists and dance companies took to the stage to perform live Bollywood dances. Some of the performers were primarily classical dancers “on loan” to Bollywood dance. Others, like Nutkhut, and Karan Pangali and KSPARK dancers, were formal dance troupes dedicated to the lives staging of Bollywood dance in the UK. Unpredented in its scope and inquiry, Frame by Frame brought scholars and practitioners together to share their views on Hindi film dance. Punctuated with film and live performances, and attend by film and dance experts from all over the world, the event tied “Bollywood glamour” with “salon sophistication.” It highlighted the connection between film and live performance in the world oh Hindi film dance. Held in one of London’s most prestigious performance venues, Frame by Frame proclaimed the arrival of Bollywood dance as a live performance style.
Generally speaking, “Bollywood dance” is a term used by film professional, amateur performers, and audience to describe dances choreographed to songs in Hindi films. The film industry based in Bombay/Mumbai and colloquially referred to as Bollywood, has enjoyed a large global distribution for more than fifty years. But, it is not just Bollywood dance classes have increasingly sprung up in India and aboard in response to the enthusiasm expressed by Indian and non-Indian audiences for dance movements they may have seen in Hindi films. In Germany, instructional DVDs extol the cultural authenticity and health benefits of Bollywood dance. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical production, Bombay Dreams, brought Hindi film dance to the stages of London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway. In the US, staged versions of Hindi film, (and some other Indian film) dances dominate South Asian and Indian cultural shows, where these dances become opportunities for the performance of immigrant and diasporic cultural identities. In India, cultural activists lament the inability of other performance traditions to defend themselves against the popular Hindi film. As the Frame by Frame UK symposium demonstrated, Bollywood dance is now really a global dance form. The proliferation provides a powerful testimony to the current popularity of dance allows in Hindi films, while simultaneously suggesting that Bollywood dance allows audiences to not only watch, but also experience firsthand, their favorite song-and-dance sequences.
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