Hindi film dance


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FILM over the last seventy-five years has treated dance like a dish on an all-you-can-eat buffet table, to be sampled all piled together on the same plate. The smorgasbord includes influences from all over the world: Chinese, Burmese, Malaysian, African, American rock and roll, jazz, Egyptian, Spanish, South American, Japanese, Hawaian, Latin American and Calypso from the West Indies. Sometimes they come second or third hand, from a pop song of that country for example.1 Are these authentic? No more so than Gobi Manchurian. But that is not the point.

Early talkies in Hindi were modelled on the stage plays of the time, which incorporated the dance, music and the art forms of all the regions where Hindi and its dialects were spoken. Once Hindi film became a pan-Indian entertainment, it sampled even more freely from various Indian regional sources: Tamil Nadu’s Karagam and Kavadichindu, Bharatanatyam, Nautanki, Bhangda from Punjab, Mande from Goa, Lavni from Maharashtra and so on.

The choreographers and dancers who enlivened these on the screen are too numerous to mention and sometimes remained uncredited. But there are some directors who paid special attention to the placement of song and dance routines in their films. I will mention only three with distinctive styles which influenced subsequent filmmakers.

Pt. Santoshi entered films as a lyricist in Mother India (1938), debuting as a director with Ham Ek Main (1946). He makes even weepy songs like ‘Mar katari mar jana’, ‘Koi kisee ka diwana na bane’ and the excruciatingly beautiful ‘Tum kya jano’ produce a cathartic effect by putting together static shots in a choreographic way. Dance is felt, not seen.

Guru Dutt, working with expert cameramen, creates exhilaration in the song sequences with a lot of movement that isn’t quite dance. In ‘Waqt ne Kiya’ from Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) showing the death of the protagonist, he harnesses the lyric, orchestration, singing, cinematography and editing to create a textbook on harnessing emotion through song.

Vijay Anand, in film after film, creates dance without dance movements. With help from the music director S.D. Burman and various lyricists, he makes the duet a joyous event that dances, not on the screen but in the spectator’s mind.


Over the years, there were many dancers, Helen being the most outstanding and prolific. Many were trained in classical modes, like Sadhana Bose in Manipuri, Sitara Devi and Gopikrishna in Kathak, Vyjayanthimala, Kamala, Padmini in Bharatanatyam, but many times this number were untrained but with a rare natural grace: Geeta Bali, Rehana, Bhagwan, Nalini Jaywant, for example. Their dances in films, good and bad, still captivate, without complicated movements or footwork or even elaborate facial expression – they charm with a natural fluidity of movement.

In this age of high level animation and expert digital trickery, where anything one can imagine can be shown, it’s easy to forget that there have always been special effects, done with masking and optical printers. The first use of slow motion was in 1951, during the long introduction to the song ‘Dhak dhak dhak’ by the director-producer-cameraman brothers Jal and Fali Mistry, though the uninformed credit usually goes to Shantaram for ‘Dil dil se’ a year later, perhaps because it was shot with a specially imported camera and turned into an especially fluid dance. In 1922, Dadasaheb Phalke managed to create the effect of his young daughter Mandakini as Krishna dancing on the many-headed serpent, while the moving-frame effect, where brief shots are cut and spliced to music, allowed director Mehboob Khan in 1940, to show his wife, who couldn’t dance, doing so divinely as Margina, in Alibaba.


Gemini’s Chandralekha directed by S.S. Vasan in 1948, the first South Indian blockbuster to run throughout India, was unapologetic about drawing its story, music, costume and set designs from all over the world, with a circus segment thrown in. It had a Strauss waltz, a ‘Telegujavali’, a Goan folk song, and an import from a Hollywood musical. This last was a comic interlude in which a wily heroine sells a horse (made up of two men as its front and back) to a simpleton. The show-stopper, however, was the dance on the drums that was the climax. The choreographers listed were Jaishankar from the North, and Mrs Rainbird and Niranjaladevi from Sri Lanka, South Indian dance masters on the staff of Gemini, with inputs from Ranjan, the heroic villain of the film, who was a trained Bharatanatyam dancer.

The well arranged drums, themselves an eyeful, each held two dancers. It starts at a slow pace and continues as the heroine, played by Rajakumari, the unattainable apple of the covetous villain’s eyes, enters. The pace quickens as the movements slide between Kandyan dance of Sri Lanka, Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. Reportedly shot over a month by different cameramen in long and mid-shots, with a peppering of close ups, it is a stupendous achievement of editing. There is no song but the music thunders to an epic climax.

Bhagwan, the son of a Bombay textile mill worker, started off as a streetside wrestler. He came to Madras with his pal, music director C. Ramchandra and made two Tamil films. In time he was a hero, comedian, fight and dance director, studio owner, and producer. His peak achievement was Albela in 1951. What music! What dances! C. Ramchandra is the music-man and Suryakumar the credited choreographer, but Bhagwan’s hand is evident in every frame.


The opening number is ‘Mehfil mein meri kaun ye deewana aa gaya – Who is the madman who entered my private chambers?’ The simple lyric by Rajinder Krishan is sung with a tingling edge by Rafi and Lata. Over the titles, Bhagwan as the hero is seen vanquishing the guards and entering the bedchamber of a princess. The dance starts ambiguously, filmed so that it is not at first clear that this is a stage number. Just as the composer of a film uses various instruments to create a subdued background to the vocal part and the more prominent bridges between the refrain and the stanzas, the choreographer creates meaningful movements by the chorus of dancers, the princess’s attendants. They are horrified at the intrusion of a stranger and come between him and the heroine, played by Geeta Bali. She is svelte and sinuous with her curved dagger; he is portly but with an undeniable grace. His eyes give her the once-over many times, not salaciously but caressingly, until she is won over. As he takes her in his arms the dagger drops from her hand, resonating with a similar moment in the crucial scene between the bandit and the bride in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon from 1950. For those who don’t know the original, it is still a delicious thrill, but for those who do, there is a sense of déjà vu and wonder at the adaptation.

Every film directed by Bhagwan has a vicuna-like softness paired with penetrating visual double entendres. Not for him the tawdry ‘What’s behind your blouse?’ when, if these guys had any guts they would have asked, ‘What’s in your blouse?’ instead. Can anyone get away with such a question? Well, Dada Kondke did. For every dirty entendre, he had a Dettol-rinsed antiseptic meaning: ‘Andheri raat mein, diya teri hath mein’, is an example.


In Bhaagam Bhaag, Bhagwan has a stunning curtain-raiser in ‘Chalke chanda ka paimana…The moon-goblet has splashed moonlight all over; intoxicated, the world sleeps. Lover, come over for a night of love.’ The choreography does not explicate the lyrics, but has the dancer making eyes and pouting at the gathering such that each man feels that he is the one being addressed. The dancer is fully dressed, and makes no sexplicit gestures. Suryakumar again gets the choreography credit. The dancer who pulls it off is Kumkum, who went on to captivate the great Mehboob Khan and the popular Ramanand Sagar, who made her their heroine in their colourful extravaganzas such Son of India in 1962 and Jalte Badan which became her swan song in 1973.

It is a pity that no one has done an in-depth study of Bhagwan in all his capacities. The rumba-samba movement of his palms and wrists came from Carmen Miranda, ‘the Brazilian Bombshell’. S.S. Vasan lifted her songs for the Tamil film Mangamma Sapatham and remade as the Hindi Mangala; the same movement can be traced to some Amitabh Bachchan moves, or by Sachin in a mythological movie Gopal Krishna in 1979. But just as everyone sings the ghazal but only Begum Akhtar can give both the fragrance of tragedy and the flavour of romance, so only Bhagwan can bring that silky smoothness to his macho glide, making it inimitable.


Bharatanatyam has been adapted to the screen right from the beginning, with the dances being done by the devadasis and nattuvanars of the time. So in the old films one can get a glimpse of their dance. One thing that directors and choreographers learned very quickly is that if it was presented on celluloid in exactly the same way that it was shown on stage, it stood out like a sore thumb. One example of this is Kinaare Kinaare, where Ragini, though an excellent dancer, is forced to move to music recorded from a stage performance. It just does not work.

When properly integrated into the medium of film, as was done in the Indo-Russian co-production, Pardesi in 1957, it can be appealing. The filming was done in Moscow. Unfortunately, the dance director from India never showed up. In order to avoid huge losses, Padmini’s sister Ragini stepped in and choreographed the dance with expertise and an intuitive understanding of the constraints of each medium. Film allows various techniques which the stage can’t use, such as quick and slow motion, the camera angles, editing, 360 degree and overhead shots, close-ups, panning and so on. If these are used or overused unnecessarily, they come off as gimmicks and distract the viewer.

Talented choreographers, and technicians make the best possible use of this potential and the performers who instinctively know what to do exploit the camera to their advantage. Lyric, music, movement and cinematic techniques come together as a unified, meaningful whole and the dance becomes part of the audience’s recollection of the film. This is achieved here with music by Anil Biswas that takes its lead from the traditional Shankarabaranam thillana. The lyrics express the predicament of the court dancer in love with the handsome visitor from Russia played by Oleg Strizhenov.

The same sore thumb rule holds true of Kathak. In Shatranj ke Khiladi, Birju Maharaj stuck to his classical guns, making director Satyajit Ray and cinematographer Soumendu Roy go to great lengths to give the sequences the right filmi tone. They succeed only partly because even the music by Ray toes the same ghunghroo line set by the Kathak maestro.


More of a success on screen is the definitely less classical number choreographed by another master, Lacchu Maharaj, with more filmic awareness. Set in the salon of professional entertainers, it is made clear that after the song and dance, other services are on offer. But there is no salaciousness in the choreography, no cleavage in the costume, nothing other than the come-hither allure and exquisite long-fingered hands of the dancer Sheela Nayak. The lyrics, ‘Ye raat phir na ayegi, jawani beet jayegi… this night won’t come again; youth will pass by’, by Nakshab, the music by Kemchand, the singing by Zohra Bai and Rajkumari, all serve the needs of the screenplay in which a man possessed by an apparition seeks corporeal diversion.

Dream sequences are a recurrent feature in Hindi films but they should really be ‘year-marked’ as BA and AA, being either ‘before Awara’ or ‘after Awara’. The impact Awara created and the influence it has had since can’t be overstated. Everything came together because of the overall vision of director-producer-performer Raj Kapoor. In the story, Raj and Rita are childhood friends. After a long gap they meet in the bloom of youth, she the adopted daughter of a rich judge, and he a small-time heel in the clutches of a criminal. He aspires to escape this hell and enter heaven holding her hand. All this is brought out in almost nine minutes, choreographed by Madame Simkie, who was at one time Uday Shankar’s partner.


Many contributed to the breathtaking sweep, especially art director Achrekar who created the smoke roiling on the floor, which adds so much to the atmosphere, and the three-headed god and the multi-armed goddess, like the one in Mata Hari, before which Greta Garbo dances. The movements bring to mind both Bharatanatyam and linked arm tribal dances. Nargis wasn’t really a capable dancer, but her ethereal expression provided a good enough cover. Coming just before the interval, it awed the audience into silence.

Uday Shankar’s own film Kalpana did not cut ice with the audience, and there were no art house cinemas in those days to promote this kind of film. Taking part were Lalitha and Padmini, known as the Travancore Sisters, Usha Kiran and her sister Leela, and Lakshmikantha who played the vamp, and Anil Chopra, the last two went on to become familiar in South Indian films. The film was shot at Gemini Studios. For months, Uday Shankar rehearsed in a rented hall in Madras, where interested people came to observe and perhaps imbibe some of his ways of thinking about movement. This may account for those who said S.S. Vasan copied Shankar in Chandralekha, a statement for which there is no evidence.


Zohra Sehgal, Uday Shankar’s early partner, handled the choreography for a few popular Hindi films. In Baazi, she created a song which acts as a warning to the hero: ‘Suno guzar kya gaye… Hear what the bird sings, time is fleeting.’ This became such a popular conceit that many such sequences followed.

Others who were with Shankar at the dance school he started in Almora, such as Guru Dutt and Sachin Shanker, got into film as choreographers. Guru Dutt choreographed Lakharani in 1945, but as it is no longer available, the speculation that he was influenced by Shankar can’t be verified. I assert that Dutt’s later song picturizations are strictly his own.

V. Shantaram from the advent of the talkie, brought many regional dance forms, both folk and classical, onto the screen over six decades of filmmaking. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955), Navrang (1959) and Pinjra (1973) are exemplary in the way choreography and screenplay are seamlessly woven together by the direction.

Shantaram, as a teenager, danced on stage in female roles. Later, both at Prabhat and his own Rajkamal Kalamandir, he made many films with dance as an important ingredient. For ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’, he worked with Gopi Krishna for three years, hammering out the choreography of a dozen genres of dance. According to him, all this experience led him to become a dance director for the unique ‘Navrang’, creating a type of dance he called Mukta Nrithya: ‘I wanted to create a style that could deal with ordinary everyday happenings, such as a housewife cooking and serving food for her husband.’ This idea achieves fruition in ‘Shyamal shyamal baran’. He dancifies everyday actions, where the plain housewife transforms into the sexy muse as she pounds spices, blows the embers of the stove, winnows the rice and pours it into boiling water, and finally laying the seat, serves him, fanning him with her sari as he eats. The movements are set to rhythm, graceful enough to lift it out of ordinary life into the sphere of dance but without becoming too dance-like either. This film won the award for best choreography from the Bombay Dance Director’s Association that year.


A dance combining bhangda, nautanki and cross-dressing was Sohanlal’s prize creation, ‘Kajra mohabatta wala’ from Kismet (1968). O.P. Nayyar weaves a web of allure with fun and frolic. Babita shows youthful machismo while Biswajit plays his femininity straight. Many actors, including Mehmood and even Amitabh Bachchan donned feminine garb to dance obscenely, but this Biswajit avoided. He is on record as saying that he strove to emulate the nautanki dancers he’d studied. The fact that two years earlier, he’d done a film under the ‘no hanky-panky’ direction of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in which he impersonates a woman, briefly brought him to mimicry rather than caricature. Sexiness in dance can be expressed in many ways, from costumes revealing cleavage and thighs, or the eroticism of the lyrics, or the rhythms that suggest bumps and grinds and pelvic thrusts, or gestures and facial expressions showing lust or bordering on lewdness.

Kamal Haasan and Silk Smitha were both known as good dancers; they came together only once, in Sadma (1983). The costumes are minimal and tribal looking, showing off especially Silk Smitha’s sumptuous curves and athleticism. It is a modern, uncategorizable pas de deux, the two bodies sinuously curving around each other without reference to any specific genre. Kamal Hassan shows off his more Bharatanatyam-ish moves, but put together with a minimalist sensibility and when the two bodies come together in rare moments their mutual tension is expressed in writhing, disjointed poses. Silk Smitha’s power is in looks that hit you in the space between your ears, where you feel it the most. The words of the song ‘O babua, yeh mahua’ don’t light any fires but Asha’s singing of Ilayaraja’s music is velvet-covered steel.

More recently, often artifice substitutes for art, with dances dependent on huge sets, ornate costumes, ensemble choreography. Sometimes this deployment of forces works.


In the present day, after decades of exploring every curve of the woman’s body, we have the camera lingering on the rippled torsos of the male stars. Lasers and shooting flames, and shots cut so short that they hardly register, create spectacle rather than emotional connection. This is clearly illustrated in the climactic dance in ABCD, Any Body Can Dance, in 2013, directed and choreographed by Remo D’Souza. Boys and girls, prodigiously talented, of uniform size, shape and dancing ability, whirl and leap to glory in a dance competition that culminates in religious frenzy. What gives the dance a special quality are the flashbacks to when the two protagonists, played by Prabudeva and Kay Kay Menon, shared a happy camaraderie, while also suggesting that it is their present rivalry that has led to this fruition, this achievement, this spectacle of dance and religiousity. The music does little more than lend rhythmic support and build to a climax.The dance distances us rather than than bringing us closer to the characters, unlike in previous decades.

Dhoom 3 has a dance titled ‘Kamli’ in which choreographers Shakti Mohan and Vaibhavi Merchant place Katrina Kaif as the contender for a role in the circus. Starting with movements in the genre of hip-hop, she gyrates her way into gymnastics, pole dancing, aerial rope and goes through all the contortions suitable to the story, but without ever forgetting that this is a dance number. Long shots allow the stunt double to do whatever is necessary to lend credence to her circus skills, while Katrina concentrates on making the whole package believable and attractive. The music and lyrics are hardly worth recalling except as background to the dance.


Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ramleela, has a dance in which ripped actor Ranveer Singh takes off his shirt in a dance display of pure machismo, with capital letters. No wonder a woman watching from the balcony faints. But it is ‘Nagada sand dhol’ that is the show-stopper, with Deepika Padukone as the principal dancer. The sexiness comes not from the movements or the physical proximity between man and woman, but through the joyous abandon of the movements, of both principal and chorus. In a folk dance/folk music idiom that exists only on the Bombay film screen – of red lehngas, nubile bodies and coloured powder – the drum is again rejuvenated as a dance prop for another generation.

Now Hindi film dance exists as a genre in its own right, with conventions, movements, postures and tropes that define it, so much so that it is one of the categories on the popular US TV show So You Think You Can Dance. Now Hollywood borrows from it in movies like Moulin Rouge and Slumdog Millionaire. Bombay cinema shows no sign of losing its taste for music and dance in the movies. Glory be!



1. Cesar Romero’s ‘Chico chico’ as the character Cuban Pete of the 1940s, became ‘Ghore ghore o banke chore’ in C. Ramchandra’s Samadhi ten years later; ‘Rassa sayang sayang re’, a Malay pop song, was used with the same refrain and tune in Shankar Jaikishen’s Singapore (1960); Carmen Miranda’s ‘Mama eu quero’ from Down Argentine Way became ‘Mamma mari’ in Mangala; a snatch from Bizet’s opera Carmen, the gypsy chorus, became ‘laraloo laraloo’ in Jadee by Naushad (1951); ‘Rock, rock, rock’ became ‘Lal, lal, gal’ in Mr X by N. Dutta (1957); ‘Hey mambo Italiano’ became ‘Hey bambo bambola’ in Mausi by Vasant Desai (1958); Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jamaican Farewell’ became ‘Do chamakti ankhon mein’ in Detective by Mukul Roy (1958). This is a far from exhaustive list.