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IttDMB: Hooray for Bollywood!!!

May 8th, 2008 (10:12 am)

You can't leave out the most prolific film industry on the planet, which specializes in dance films...

© 2008
D. Gordon

"So," I said to my co-worker, "I'm doing a dance movie blogathon, and I'm thinking that Bollywood would be good. What should I watch? What do you look for in a Bollywood film, and how do you decide if you like it? And how much do you weight the different factors to decide you like it?"

My co-worker, a hard-core Bollywood fan, answered with an extensive list. First, she wants to feel good in the end - whether it's Bollywood or Hollywood; she's not one for violence or tragedy. As far as Indian movies go, she's looking for great acting with a vibrant look and an engaging story, whether it's comedy, a chick flick, or something that moves the viewer. And, she added, "The added bonus in a Hindi film is, of course, great song numbers."

Let's explain that "Hindi film" comment first. "Bollywood" film is a bit of a misnomer. Bollywood, a combination of "Bombay" (Mumbai) and "Hollywood," is the largest producer of Indian films (and the largest producer of films worldwide, period); but it's really the center of Hindi language films. There are numerous other regional film industries, all based on language. Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian film, came out of the Marathi industry, and art film titan Satyajit Ray started in the Bengali industry.

But Bollywood is the center of the Indian film industry and the biggest by far, producing 877 feature films and 1177 shorts in 2003 (roughly twice as many features as Hollywood produced that year). Although there are exceptions, dance has been an integral part of them almost back to the beginning. Soundtracks are often released in order to prime the audience for the film, and can become monster hits in their own rights (dance sequences make perfect videos, after all). Bollywood DVDs are the only ones I've ever seen in which the menus have a separate section for the songs.

Wikipedia describes the typical Bollywood movie as a masala mix - an extravaganza of melodrama, comedy, dance and thrills. Of the films I've seen, Devdas (2002) probably comes closest to that standard: a period story, from a well-known novel; top stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai); glorious costumes (and this is a period piece, so it's traditional glory: myriad glittering saris, traditional waistcoats, and jewelry, jewelry, jewelry); sumptuous sets (not one, but two huge houses adjacent to each other, especially one in stained glass, as these are two very wealthy families); a romantic plot with lots of angst and melodrama (boy leaves girl, boy returns to girl, boy and girl are together, boy and girl get driven apart, boy rejects girl, boy comes back to girl, girl rejects boy - and that's just the first hour); and dance dance dance, all in about three hours. It stars Bollywood royalty - Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai - in a tale of two people seemingly fated for each other; Devdas Mukherjee (Khan) returns from ten years spent studying in England), but his vindictive sister-in-law starts a chain of events which result in the couple breaking up, Pari (Rai) married to another man, and Devdas becoming an alcoholic who is taken in by Chandramukhi (Dixit), a prostitute with a heart of gold who also falls in love with him. Dances, mostly ensemble pieces led by at least one of the main characters, are beautifully choreographed to express the characters' relationships at given points. And they are laid out to carefully fit into the story and make the stars look very very good: this film was meant to be the blockbuster that it became.

The most famous dance sequence from the move is tha song "Dola Re Dola", in which Paro and Chandramukhi have met and decided how to keep Devdas from slow suicide. Their dance together is full of vivid colors - they and the ensemble are dressed in white saris sprinkled with gold; the two leads' costumes have pink accents while the other dancers have corresponding gold accents. Their hands and feet are hennaed, and jewelry is in abundance (and a rich woman's jewelry is drastically different from a prostitute's). The entire set is full of vivid shades around them.

The dances here, as in most Bollywood films, demand a certain amount of athleticism and endurance. The action is nonstop and uses the full body; arms, legs, shoulders, knees are in constant motion as the dancers move across the floor, dropping down, sliding back up, putting all that color into motion. It's high energy, and not just for younger stars (Shah Rukh Khan is now in his mid-forties and still going strong). It's swirling energetic dancing to an active beat, designed to keep the audience's energy level high.

Another recent film, mix with mixed reviews at home but extremely well received overseas, is Dil Se (1998), again a romance, again with Shah Rukh Khan, again a basic boy-meets-girl story - although this time the boy's more than a little obsessed and the film plays out against a backdrop of separatist terrorism. My coworker warned me that "serious" films had fewer dances sequences, and Dil Se proves her point: while it still clocks in at three hours, there are only five songs and four dances. (Devdas has 10, all dances.) But this is a slightly different animal; choreographed by Farah Khan, a Bollywood superstar who works internationally (she did the choreography for the Hong Kong dance film Perhaps Love), they're integrated in the storyline just as well as in Devdas but in a different way. One of the movie's subthemes is the seven stages of love, expressed in Amar Varma's (Shah Rukh Khan) pursuit of the mysterious Meghna (Manisha Koirala), and the dance sequences reflect Amar's daydreams around Megna and movement through those stages. Dream Meghna is much more open and expressive, and Farah Khan uses costumes, locations, and cinematography to expand the boundaries of dance. The first dance, "Chaiya Chiaya," which reflects Amer's feelings after meeting then losing this woman he's bumped into at a rainy railway station, was filmed atop a moving train. A group of 30-40 dancers move in tight choreography atop the cars as the train twists through mountain greenery, into tunnels, across trestles. The unrestrained Meghna stand-in (played by another actress) is a seductress and almost a tease in his danced imagination, although she's just slipped away from him to board her train in real life. The train sequence is again athletic, with a catchy tune and a woman showing a little more skin than normal in a Bollywood film, and the added thrill of the "dance floor" - it is a moving train, after all, and one slip or miscalculation could have meant serious injury - is probably one factor in what made this one of the most popular songs in recent Bollywood history. The song has crossed international boundaries as well, and has been used in the Hollywood film Inside Man, the hit Broadway musical Bollywood Dreams, and several television programs. Move over, Grease.

There's another dance sequence, "Satrangi Re", which may not be as popular as "Chaiya Chiaya" but is just as innovative (if not more so). Filmed in the remote region of Ladakh, adjacent to Tibet, Farah Khan puts Amer and Meghna alone in the stark backdrop of an almost lunar landscape (in what's called "picturisation"). They're arrayed in a number of beautiful and colorul costumes, including one resembling a large red silk bag inside of which the two dance. Steps are shot against ruins, on sand dunes, in reflections from ponds, on a pebbled beach, across what looks like a salt flat. The steps are alomst more modern dance than Hindi. At this point Amer has fantasized with Meghna about what their married life might be like; this dance perfectly reflects his thoughts about both cracking this woman's façade and wanting just to be with her, as well as sounding a bleak tone regarding the obstacles that their love will face. Definitely my favorite of all the Bollywood dances.


Satya (1998) takes a third approach to dance in Hindi film. It's a story about the Mumbai underworld and a man with no past who appears in that world and becomes a kingmaker of sorts. Director Ram Gopal Varma heavily researched the criminal world to bring a level of realism to the film, singlehandedly spawning a genre - the "Mumbai-noir," in the process. Again - this being a "serious" film - there are few dances, and the ones there are are not the color- and energy-filled extravaganzas of the other films. There's a cast of "tens" rather than dozens in the dance sequences, and movements are much more casual, almost freeform. Sets are much plainer, with a vast reduction in color: this is a rough-and-tumble crowd of gangsters at work and relaxing. There's one dance sequence (unfortunately without subtitles), in which the gang members, drunk out of their gourds, extol the virtues of gang life, undershirts, cigarettes and booze at hand. Remeber that Verma's goal here is realism, and it all makes sense: this is back-slapping drunk-happy movement. Gangsters are not romantics - if they were to become romantics, there would likely be a heavy price to pay - so portraying them as such makes no sense. That lesson does play out later in the film.

No embedding, you'll have to check this out in a different window


So what does my coworker think about these films? While they don't have those happy endings she likes to see, she has seen Devdas and Dil Se, and liked them very much (although they're too depressing for her to want to again). She's able to watch them in Hindi, and some information is lost in the translated subtitles, but she found them well-done in the storylines, msic, choreography, sets, and can name those favorite songs. She was entertained, which is really what these movies are about.

I'm just glad to have found out about some of the variety in Bollywood dance; it's just as much of a masala mix as the variety of entertainment found in the standard masala movie. I'm looking forward to exploring more (especially featuring the choreography of Farah Khan).