Bodily fluid: the movement of Bollywood dance from body to body

by Paromita Vohra

For long, the song-and-dance elements of Indian cinema were seen as guilty pleasures, not to mention proof of its artistic inferiority.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Even today, when this approach is being reassessed, it is not uncommon to hear the dismissive term ‘dancing around trees.’ It is presented as an emblem of popular Hindi cinema’s infantile silliness, apparently on account of both un-realism and coyness about sex, disallowed by censorship. Into present time, directors of the new wave of Bollywood ‘indies’ declare their squeamishness with the song-and-dance routine, and they talk about how they work around it in their films as it is a necessity of the market rather than an artistic preference. Their solutions are often presented as bringing songs into the film within the purview of logic. The chief criticism of the song-and-dance routine is rooted in the idea that linearity and realism are superior qualities of cinema, and song and dance disrupt linearity of plot while being completely unrealistic.

But popular Hindi cinema does not favor realism as an aesthetic. Rather, it functions through a number of simultaneous symbolic languages. Bollywood dance—as the amalgamative, energetic mixture of folk, classical, Indian and international dance—forms into a cinematic item, it is now known, as one of these symbolic languages. Dance occurs in films in varied ways and contexts. Sometimes it is a folksy performance watched by benign urban visitors; sometimes a private reverie where someone, usually a woman, fantasizes about forthcoming love and desire, frolicking in nature; sometimes a private romantic/erotic play between lovers. It occurs in a variety of dance styles, producing a popular version of everything from Bharatanatyam [2] to Cha Cha Cha.

To comprehensively examine the archive of Bollywood dance is a giant undertaking. My effort in this essay is not to be comprehensive, but to trace one kind of Bollywood dance to show something fundamental about the function of dance in Bollywood and about the nature of popular Hindi cinema’s relationship with bodies. I will trace some developments within a particular item of dance often found in Hindi films: the staged dance performance which gained popularity in the 1940s and transformed in various ways until the 1990s. After this it remains vestigially in films as the item number—unless, of course, it is a film centered on dance, such as Taal  (1999, Subhash Ghai) or ABCD (2013, Remo D'Souza).

Perhaps capitalizing on playback-singing technology to expand the repertoire of dance entertainment, the staged dance was a staple of films of the 1940s and 1950s. It was almost always presented as a tableau of some kind—combining backdrops and props with stylized group formations to communicate a social argument. A notable example is the song ‘Door hato ai duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai’ (trans. A way with you, people of this world, India is ours) from the 1942 super-hit Kismat (1943, Gyan Mukherjee). Apparently, this was a song to support the war effort of the ruling colonial power, Britain, in World War II against German and Japanese enemies, as indicated by the lines: ‘Shuru hua hai jung tumhara, jaag utho Hindustani/Tum na kisike aage jhukna, German ho ya Japani’ (trans. Your war has begun now, arise o Indian/Bend before no one, neither Japanese nor German). This overt message about the colonially supportive Indian disguised another Indian, the nationalist in-the-making. A map of India recurred through the pattern on the stage curtain, through a backdrop and through the formation of dancers in a clear V-shape to mimic the map of India through their bodies. In the final stanza of the song, a woman dressed as ‘Mother India’ [3]  appears, almost held aloft by a bank of trumpet music. The men and women, along with the lyrics of the song, represent several ‘types’ of Indians, familiar to us today as community types who symbolize the Indian secularist imagery of unity in diversity (Hindu–Muslim–Sikh–Isai/Christian). These bodies merge with the bodies of soldiers who are meant to fight the British war, but with raised fists, they are clearly coding the dance as a performance about India’s struggle for independence. The audience joins the chorus, joins this nationalist or colonial Indian identity—as it chooses, perhaps, or perhaps even both.

This kind of staged performance watched by a live audience via a filmed audience—from a double distance, in a sense—frequently concerned itself with the idea of Indianness. How to reconcile the idea of a traditional, ethnically inflected India, whose village roots were being glorified via Gandhianism, with the simultaneous nationalist idea of a ‘modern, secular’, religiously inflected India?

These tensions provided a basis for the staged dance items, which took place in the form of an argument between these two impulses: tradition vs. modernity, rootedness vs. deracination, urban vs. rural, vernacular vs. English-speaking. Very often they played out through stories of romance and relationships and ideal women, sometimes men. The narratives frequently debated the merits of ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ women on the basis of dress, literacy, urbanization and, also, erotic willingness. The narratives were laced with an anxiety about women’s sexuality within the world of Indian progress, education and mobility, which was addressed in different ways through these dances.

A striking example is the song ‘Hum hain Bharat ki naari, sabse nyaari’ (trans. We are the women of India, the best of all women ) from the 1952 film Mr Sampat (1952, S S Vasan) based on R.K. Narayan’s novel of the same name. It was also made in Tamil under the title Miss Malini (1947, dir. Kothamangalam Subbu). The song begins with a row of urban women declaring themselves Indian women, the best of all, and carrying out a hand movement used to ward off the evil eye when you praise someone—in this case themselves, and perhaps by extension modern Indian women viewers. In subsequent stanzas of the song, they perform in graduation robes, declaring themselves hard-working and educated, ‘B.A. Pass’, dedicated to improving themselves. But alas, they declare, traditional India does not appreciate them. For when they marry, they meet with the mother-in-law’s scorn.

Cue mothers-in-law: a row of women dressed as old-fashioned hags with crooked sticks come forth in a hobbling step, dismissing these women, these ‘padhi-likhi titli’ (trans. educated butterflies) who will never be able to do hard domestic labor like grinding wheat. Enter a row of women who can, wearing ‘filmi rural’ dress—short ghagra [4] skirts and half-saris—and presenting themselves as demure.

They are met by a row of men dressed in suits. They scold the ‘traditional’ women, calling them, “ Stupid! Idiot! Illiterate!” How can these uneducated girls make good wives for modern Indian men? Further, declares the song, with such a wife, ‘ab to romance of the life, khatam ho gaye saare’ (trans. That puts paid to romance in life ).

In one deft verse, the dance plays out all the tensions of changing Indian society as a cultural battle of womanhood being fought by women, even while staging women’s desire for progress as the necessary condition for her being a modern Indian man’s helpmate. And yet, the ambiguities and layering of the staged dance make this not so simple. The message is undercut by the arrogance of the men’s dance-steps.

In the next stanza, the educated women reappear dressed as nurses. Now, they state how their education is really for looking after people—‘hum seva karne ko, dekho aayi’ (trans. Look, we  are here to serve ). They are followed by a group of men bearing stethoscopes round their necks who try to romance them: ‘Nurse, you make my heart beat faster.’ At this point, oddly enough, the song finishes, with the nurse-women never having to respond to the doctors’ rising blood pressure.

But, in this verse the tension of the educated woman being selfish, unable to look after others as per her domestic role, is smoothly subsumed (as it was in society) into a noble ‘looking after’ profession. The two bodies—of the woman who serves and the woman who deserves—are merged into a woman who does both, somewhat.

Most importantly, the nature of the women’s dance is entirely unornamental. The steps are brisk, near-military, with no bodily excess. The body is composed, contained. The woman in these dances seeking education, modernity, mobility, does so by boiling out the sexual, by presenting a precise, desexualized progressive womanhood, a delimited mobility. Men, already set up as arrogant in the earlier part of the set-piece, yet again present themselves as loose-limbed and shallow. The women’s pursuits, on the other hand, are self-improvement and social good, not pleasure: mobility justified by nobility.

The men, stiff and arrogant or shallow and louche, become represented as unmoored, deracinated sensualists, and are at the same time absolved of the weight of carrying forward moral tradition in their bodies, a task which falls squarely on female shoulders. In other staged songs, though, this idea of westernized masculinity as ludicrous and feminized is also explored. In ‘Aana meri jaan, Sunday ke Sunday’  (trans. Come by darling, every Sunday) from the film Shehnai (1947, P L Santoshi), a male dancer dressed as Charlie Chaplin, mimicking the staccato movements of silent film speed, tries to woo a traditional rural woman. He offers to take her to Paris, London and other fleshpots to dance and romance, and, moreover, to eat non-vegetarian food (‘murgi ke ande’/eggs). Here, the rural woman rejects him firmly, presenting the contrasting masculinity of her muscular husband who chases after him with a stick. Even as he sidles off—as he is, naturally, a coward—he is rescued by a woman in jodhpurs who arrives bearing a gun, masterfully saying, ‘Oh my dear, come come come.’ The idea presented in this dance—where the man is weak and comical while the woman is firm and masculine—is, of course, that in modernity, men were emasculated by emancipated women. And yet, in the cheeriness of their dance, they seem somewhat made for each other, even if they don’t quite fit the ideal image of feminine and masculine, allowing you to see it as you will.

The staged performance became a way to iterate the normative Indian body, especially in terms of gender, though also of location and, by extension, class and caste. Even as this was a very developed, didactic thread of Hindi film dances, other threads existed in the same film that too might be staged performances but did not play out didactic messages. Rather, their unadulterated purpose was pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, the film discussed above, Mr. Sampat (1952, S. S. Vasan)which interestingly also explores the tensions between print’s noble cerebral qualities and cinema’s more misleading bodily qualities—features performances that include a generically Islamicate court dance as well as a Kathak-style courtesanal dance. These often featured only the minor characters. But they might also feature the protagonists, as in the song ‘Shola jo bhadke’  (trans. when the ember sparks) from the 1951 film Albela (1951, Bhagwan), where there is an unproblematized dance of love and seduction between a woman and a man in a Hawaiian setting. The dance is sinuous, love is joy, the body is free—a cosmopolitan enjoyment of material and bodily pleasures played out and approved by the protagonists of the film.

A more interesting version of this performance was the queer staged dance. In these dances, male characters were often played by women and vice versa. A famous song, ‘O gore gore, o banke chhore’  (trans. Hey boy, fair of face, full of grace), from the 1957 film Samadhi (1950, Ramesh Saigal),  has the female and male parts all played by female actors. In another film, Half-Ticket (1962, Kalidas), there is a song with the actor Pran dressed as a man and actor Kishore Kumar dressed as a woman. At other times men dress as women and women as men—for instance, the popular ‘Kajra mohabbat wala, akhiyon mein aisa dala’ (trans. Oh that kohl of love that changed my eyes), which featured the actor Biswajeet as a woman and the actress Babita as a man, with her/him seducing him/her. The backdrop against which this song takes place is of the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar—monuments of the national capital but also monuments of a bygone Mughal era. Both actors are dressed in Islamicate dress—Biswajeet in a gharara [5] as a respectable Muslim woman, and Babita as a Pathan. The underlying connotation of homosexuality, an urban legend that accrues to the figure of the Pathan, is also threaded through this queer performance.

While presented quite routinely as a part of the entertainment in earlier films, soon enough this cross-dressing dance would appear under some pretext or excuse—while hiding from criminals, the police, or persecutors of some kind. Sometimes it would even be that the dancing partners were adversaries, carrying out their conflict covertly and in plain sight.

It would not be an over-reading to see this as a presentation of queerness, its histories and its conditions through dance without ever stating it as such—analogous to the presentation of Indian independence and nationalism under the pretext of supporting the war effort in Kismat (trans. fate, 1943, Gyan Mukherjee). In other words, even while dance was used to serve a didactic function it simultaneously provided spectators with sensory pleasures—whether performed as a social necessity, an intimate pleasure, or even a sign of decadence. While the context might inflect the dance, the dance itself provided pure pleasure—guilty, disingenuous, or simple—to the viewers.

The presence of these diverse dancing bodies is historically important. In her book, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Anna Morcom traces the disappearance of the skilled professional and often caste-based, hereditary dance performers, who inhabited a liminal world of acceptance though not respectability. The anti-nautch [6] purity movements of the nineteenth century decimated the profession of many of these communities—nats,  tawaifs/courtesans, transgender dancers, ghazal [7] singers—conflating them with sex work, and pushing to have them outlawed and stigmatized. In doing this they robbed these communities of the idea of work, but also sanitized the world of Indian dance and music, limiting it to classical and faux-classical forms. Much of this was contingent on women not performing any more as a mark of purification, for the weight of the purity movements rested on the form of the female performer. One publication from the Punjab Purity Association quotes the social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen as saying that the nautch- girl was a

“hideous woman . . . hell in her eyes. In her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell. Her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or willful victims that fall in her way. Her blandishments are India's ruin. Alas! her smile is India’s death.”

Even as the feudal zamindari economy and older royal houses crumbled, these movements marked the scattering of entire communities and also pleasure pastimes of common as well as aristocratic people. But these bodies and people and forms were drawn into the Parsi theatre and then the film industry over time, especially with Kathak dancers and tawaifs [8] (trans. courtesans) teaching and performing dances, and musicians performing in song recordings. There are known examples like that of Jaddan Bai who worked as a composer and film producer.

And there are several unknown names who worked in this industry, ghosts of another time and stage, peopling the studios of Bollywood, ventriloquizing their craft through the bodies of film actors and dance performances to an audience that had absorbed these ideas of morality, that consumed them with covert pleasure, wrapped up in the larger, normative narratives and bodies of the Hindi film.

Even while centralized narratives subsumed these bodies, erasing the memory of this world of dance and sexual existence, the unruly narrative style of the Hindi film contained many of these worlds as a demotic: the mujra [9] (trans. courtesanal dance) dancer who sometimes played a character, the cross-dressing dance, the transgender performance.

In this way film dance both established an ideal body and destabilized it with pleasurable counter-bodies, allowing both to coexist—some might say uneasily, others might say fluidly. These diverse threads, while remaining in the Hindi film in one form or the other, slowly ceased to be standard elements, however. As films began to focus more on urban love stories and family dramas, staying more within a particular class, the contexts for these dance forms decreased. Even as they slowly receded, becoming more occasional, they were nevertheless consolidated —most remarkably in the body of one woman, the most iconic of Indian film dancers: Helen.

Helen Richardson, of Burmese and Anglo-Indian descent, started her dancing career in Hindi films in 1951 as a chorus and occasional solo dancer. But she came to prominence in 1957 with the noir film Howrah Bridge (1958, Shakti Samanta), in a Chinese-style cabaret-item song, ‘Mera naam Chin- Chin Chu.’ (trans. My name is Chin Chin Chu) Her unmistakable lightness, her carefree and somewhat western movements, coupled with her ‘foreign’—light-skinned, light-eyed, auburn-haired—appearance made her represent an idea of womanhood that was decidedly not Indian. From then, through the 1960s and until the mid-1970s, Helen featured in over 500 films, sometimes playing the part of a moll or a vamp, but mostly only featuring in one stand-out dance sequence.

It was as if Helen signified dance itself in Hindi films. She also took all the elements of earlier staged performances—setting, dress, style, flavor—and unified them in her very being as well as the nature of the dance. Almost all Helen’s dance items were performed dances before a public, but not from the safe distance of the proscenium stage. Rather, the dance, usually a cabaret in a club setting, took place in the midst of the audience or at the same level as the audience. It might be blithe, brittle, frisky, sensual, frankly sexual or exploitatively sexual. The costume was revealing, but beyond that, highly glamorous, and moreover, so exaggerated as to be beyond body and in fact, practically, an installation.