Discover more from From Prathyush
On Dance In Cinema
With the drastic reduction in shot durations and a replacement of choreography that we might want to copy, with choreography we can only marvel at, the role of dance in Hindi movies has been altered.
It all began while watching In The Heights, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, reviewed here. While watching it, I was struck by two things. At 2 hours 20 minutes, the film had little impact, little narrative potence, and yet I sustained, thoroughly propelled from the lap of one dance sequence to the next, coming close in tow. As if dance and music — well strung, well sung — was enough to make a compelling film.
The second thing that struck me was that despite being washed over by subsequent, strong waves of dance and music, I didn’t want to revisit any of it again — neither on YouTube, nor by pausing and going back, the way I did for La La Land’s opening song, taking every willing person, friend, roommate to the theater when it came out, or the way I did for Ram-Leela, taking every willing friend, relative, teacher to the theater when it came out, and later revisiting it on YouTube till the algorithm broke suggesting me only covers of the same songs.
So what is it about dance, with its self-contained allure? The tradition in Indian films is so strong, because there are so many spaces for the choreography to cascade — school dances, neighbourhood talent shows, television talent shows, marriage ceremonies, festivals, fiestas, funerals, or even just to show-off in front of an uncle who happened to drop by. I remember looking at the simple, absurdly simple dance of ‘Hare Ram Hare Krishna’ from Bhool Bhulaiyaa — as a joke, wondering if this was what it has come to — and then at the first ever Diwali Dhamaka that our school hosted, my snooty ass took a hike, for when the song blared from the speakers, the whole sea of students, me included of course, just put our hands up, miming that very simple choreography — everyone knew it, everyone did it. Looking at my barely 4 year old cousin twirling, trying to mimic the ‘Ghoomar’ steps while her mother looks protectively on, afraid her daughter might become dizzy, my aunt wondering what made a Kathak dancer of the society perform hip-hop songs at the society talent show, juniors complaining that their thighs are burning trying to do the steps from ‘Nagade Sang Dhol' for our high school farewell, it is clear that the song-dance has more cultural currency than the film it is embedded in. J. Omprakash, a producer-director who cut his teeth in the movies of the 60s noted that having Vyjanthimala, a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, act in his movies meant an intentional improvement in the film’s music. It’s cyclical, this relationship between dance and music and movies. For example, when the singer Mohammad Rafi was worried about the repetition in ‘Yeh Chand Sa Roshan Chehra’, the actor Shammi Kapoor placated him noting with every repetition, he’ll do a different gesture, a different choreography. But is dance enough to sustain a movie?
Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema by Usha Iyer comforts here, with its anthropological verbiage — difficult, sometimes impossible to understand, but helpful once cracked through.
“When we shift our focus from plot to bodily performance to the corporeal competence and protracted training required for dancing, and to the spectatorial desires that screen-dancing bodies activate, we may discern that spectacle is the narrative… When the presence of a dancing star occasions a string of production numbers, the film’s narrative is deeply destabilized, resulting sometimes in delightfully choppy, lurching narratives.”
Iyer notes that this is rooted in Indian aesthetic tradition, this idea of the rasas, where through physical actions, gestures, the dancer can produce an affect in the viewer, and this affect can be enough for the narrative. But the relationship between dance and cinema cuts deeper.
For one, when the Edison Manufacturing Company were showcasing cinema as moving photographs to platform kinetic drama, they used dancers. Edison’s camera, mounted on a tripod, was static and so they compensated with dancers who injected motion into the screen — the “motion pictures” getting another semantic dimension. Iyer notes the names of the early movies in India — documentaries that use dance as a visual and kinetic muse — to explain this connection.
Dancing Scenes Of The Flower Of Persia (Hiralal Sen, 1898)
Dances From Ali Baba (Hiralal Sen, 1903)
Dancing Of Indian Nautch Girls (Elphinston Bioscope, 1906)
With Raja Harischandra (DG Phalke, 1913), India’s first feature film, devotional singing and dancing became important. With the introduction of sound in 1931 and playback sound in 1935, the “song-and-dance sequence” became something that would be on posters on films to advertise them. The first sound film Alam Ara (1931) was described as “100% talking, singing, dancing.” Over the years as the camera was liberated from cables and microphones, and over the decades as film gave way to digital and faster edits, it would be these sequences that would seduce the spectator into coming into the theater — the cabaret songs of Helen with the micro-choreography of her face, which in the 80s and 90s, took a more erotic, explicit form in Tamil and Telugu cinema with Silk Smitha’s narrative interjections of gyrating dance. In The Dirty Picture (2011), the biopic of Silk Smitha, there is a wonderful scene where people storm into the theater just to watch her song and then leave. The “item song” is the pejorative and successful logical child of this phenomenon — the oddly melodious ‘Zaalima Coca Cola Pila’, which begins with a shot of Nora Fatehi’s heaving bosom, has been trending on YouTube since it dropped a week ago.
Filmmakers are aware of this, sometimes to a wily extent. When Thugs Of Hindostan was being promoted, Yash Raj Films was so clever, fully knowing the film is a dud, making sure the video for the Katrina Kaif song, ‘Surayya’, wasn’t released beforehand as was and is the norm — to release the video of the song to promote the film, and gather attention, because nothing else does. They knew that if they released the song no one would come to the theater to watch the film which looked exceptionally dull from the trailers itself, sparing the dance. I say this anecdotally too, for few friends of mine noted how they’d probably go watch the film in the theater only to see the song, such was, is the allure of Kaif’s choreographed body.
But certainly there has been a leap in the idea of dance-songs in the past few decades. We are moving towards a space where these songs aren’t designed to be replicable, but just a moving sculpture of awe. Hrithik Roshan’s fluid folding into the air, Tiger Shroff’s decades-trained acrobatics, Nora Fatehi’s athletic, punctuated gestures hold court. The “spectatorial desire” to want to perform these steps has been replaced by just awe. But the thing about awe is that while it can be compelling, it isn’t necessarily memorable. I might be in the minority here, but I have never felt the urge to watch a Hrithik Roshan dance more than a few times, sometimes just once. The song in War with Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff gave the makers an excuse to stretch the limits of choreography, and the product was a spectacular but boring beauty.
In the Film Comment Bollywood Issue of 2002, the introductory image was of Vyjanthimala from the song ‘Honton Pe Aisi Baat’ from Jewel Thief (1967), an extravagant set number involving intrigue but also a terrific use of space, where Vyjanthimala literally traverses every corner of the set, jumping, kindling, stuttering in her feet, making where she moves the center of the set. Writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, who wrote for tue Film Comment issue, called these songs the “emotional high point” of the movies, a descendent of the Parsi Theater’s intermixed music-dance-myth tradition. But even as we retained this tradition, the evolving technology morphed its presentation.
Between 1931, when sound began in movies and 1935, when playback singing was introduced, we used to have the concept of the singer-actor who would sing on set, with the musical instruments playing live behind the camera, outside its gaze. (Sometimes they would be perched on a tree in outdoor shoots near Powai Lake) This made the songs less kinetic because the actor couldn’t sing and dance at the same time. With playback that changed with pre-recorded songs set to emphatic choreography. Soon the camera could swoop and slide, adding its own movements to the kinetic drama of a dance song. With the introduction of colour in movies, the rainbow riot and tactile possibilities of dance multiplied. In fact in Nagin (1955), only the song-and-dance sequences were shot in colour.
Here is what I find interesting. When we see the old dance films — the hypnotic and quick footed dances of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) or Amrapali (1966), the dance, often classical, has an unpolished rage in its speed, a clumsy exuberance, almost as if the dance is happening in that liminal space between the control of limbs and the flinging of it around. A lot of people call these sequences perfect out of nostalgia perhaps, but it isn’t. There is something very uncontrolled about it. But the thing is the makers of that time had limited reels to cough through, and thus a limited number of shots. Each shot of the song is thus longer than we are used to seeing now, and the implication of this is that the dance had to be more vigorous, more noisy. Even in these songs, when they stop to gesture gracefully, a slowness sets in, a perfection sets in with every gaze, every mudra landing softly. But this slowness was not what the filmmakers wanted, for with a limited number of cuts, watching a slow, graceful dance would be like watching a dance recital live. But this was cinema. Hence, motion.
But when we come to the 2000s, notice how frequent the cuts are, such that even a graceful song like ‘Kajra Re’ — a mujra in a dance club, melting the tawaif and the cabaret dancer figure — is cut-to, cut-from constantly so that the gracefulness never leaks into the territory of slowness. There is a constant tension, a worry that I note in these changes of the camera’s perspective. Cinema has attempted perfection by chopping it up into the smallest permissable unit of motion.
James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University who’s been studying the evolution of cinema, noted how the average shot length of English language films had declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today. I wager that if a similar study were done with Indian films, we would find a similar result. Just look at the number of cuts in ‘Kamli’, such that when you have these 6-8 second shots of Katrina Kaif dancing continuously, limb motion to limb motion, it feels visibly slower than the rest of the song which is a dizzying buffet of artifice and acrobatics, landing one after the other.
It is why choreographers love to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the directors who allows his songs to breathe, with longer shot durations, because for him, awe is in the costume, in the set, in the music already. He has his top shots giving us opportunities to take the grandeur in, his actresses a yearning, spinning top . There is no need for the edit to concoct drama additionally.
When Bhansali had visited the choreographer Saroj Khan in the hospital after the release of Devdas, she was in lucid state, yet conscious enough to ask him, “‘Maar Dala’ pe seeti baji kya?” Did the audience whistle when ‘Maar Dala’, a song she choreographed, came up on screen? A relic of old school cinema, Saroj Khan was a background dancer in the 50s, an assistant choreographer in the 60s and 70s and the definitive choreographer of the 80s and 90s, propelling Madhuri Dixit to restrained sexy stardom. Khan’s style fell out of favour over the 2000s. She would do obscure films. When I saw her at a press conference a few years ago, she was heaving, creaking, and said, in half-jest that she would stand in line with the background dancers, looking for work, if bad times befall her. It seems they had, if rumours are to be believed. She died of cardiac arrest, and now Bhushan Kumar, the producer responsible for the remixed tracks that drove her out of choreographic fashion, is producing her biopic.