Documenting a corporeal history of dance in Hindi cinema

review by Rutuja Deshmukh

Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema by Usha Iyer (Oxford University Press, 2020).

In Dancing Women Usha Iyer takes her readers through a fascinating journey of Hindi film dance and its corporeal histories; she centres her analysis on female cultural labour in the Bombay film industry. Her approach differs from most scholarly work on labour and the media, which focuses predominantly on mode of production. For this reason, Iyer’s corporeal reading of dance form in Hindi cinema initiates an important intervention in the area of cultural labour studies. Dancing Women brings in a fresh perspective as well to feminist film scholarship. The main figurations in the book are the women dancers in feature film from the 1930s to 1990s—Azurie, Sadhona Bose, Vyjayantimala, Helen, Waheeda Rehman, Madhuri Dixit, and Saroj Khan. Iyer explains how these dancing women of Bombay cinema from various caste, class, religious and racial backgrounds co-create and co-choreograph a “dance-scape,” a concept which helps us understand the material history of dancing bodies. Her work also emphasizes the importance “silenced” bodies, that is, lower-caste traditional performers tawaifs (courtesans), devdasis (temple dancers), cinematic vamps, background dancers and dancers performing body as body doubles for star dancers.  

Existing scholarship on dance in Hindi cinema mostly considers song and dance as an integrated practice. (Gopal and Moorti, 2008) Questions of evolving practices of song and dance in popular Hindi cinema have been analysed at length by Gehlawat and Dudrah (2017). In addition, taking up a class analysis, Morcom (2013) discusses fundamental paradigm shifts that aided India’s bourgeois nation building project. Her work exposes how female erotic performance was excluded as a crucial part of this embourgeoisement of the performing arts at a time when Hindi film industry, after India’s economic liberalisation in 1990s which, initiated a changed outlook towards dance erotica.

Iyer considers the dancing body itself as both scripting and scripted by Hindi cinema. She traces how changes in signifying practices in the Bombay film industry advanced new histories in India of the female body. With a detailed account of careers of Sadhana Bose, Azurie and Vyjayantimala, and their movements between stage and screen, Iyer constructs a movement vocabulary to understand current debates in film studies around respectability, corporeal expressivity, and intensity. Iyer’s meticulous chronology, which is not necessarily linear, analyses discursive formations around gender, female mobility and public presence.

Kumkum the Dancer (Modhu Bose, 1940)

In her first chapter, “Dance Musicalization and Choreomusiking Body: Corporealising Theoretical Frameworks of Film Dance and Music,” Iyer sets the tone of her argument by positing questions of qualitative difference between spectatorial engagement with dance numbers and with song sequences. Her focus is on song picturization, a popular term in the industry, which is the practice of recording a song first and then adding visuals. In this way she broadens critical discussion of the production of dance numbers and of music composition, particularly as responding to the dancing skills of dance actors. Iyer’s focus on the categorisation of filmic dance as narrative numbers and production numbers provides a fresh perspective on the scholarship on dance and music in Hindi cinema. She categorises filmic dance as narrative numbers and production numbers thereby laying foundation for a catalogue of integrated, non-diegetic song and dance sequences. The song-dance sequence integrated in lyrical content to the plot is narrative number, whereas a dance number that is situationally or spatially not co-ordinated with the filmic moment is non-diegetic. In this insightful analyses of narrative pleasures of the text and spectacle over narrative, Iyer foregrounds the corporeal gestures of dancing bodies in Hindi cinema.

In Iyer’s words, in the construction of female star text, dance is often the legitimised form of mobility for the female performer, while action or fights perform the same function for a male performer. She furthers her argument with examples from Tezaab and bodily gestures of female and male star ‘entry’ or introduction. Her enquiry into this gendered introduction of male and female lead actors theorises the sensation and attractions gained through choreography.

Using a kinaesthetic theorisation of empathy which signals towards bodily movements that signify certain feelings, she initiates a movement-oriented psychoanalysis of dance. It counters one-way logics of film spectatorship based on analysis or reception alone thereby theorising performance and reception. The questions of “respectability” attached to certain dance forms like Bharatnatyam and embourgeoisiement of these forms calls for a thorough engagement with questions of cultural labour and performance. She brings in critical scholarship on the dance forms in Indian cinema of 1930s and 1940s that involved an appropriation of the cultural practices of traditional performers like devdasis and tawaifs by upper caste and class performers, as part of the nationalist project. Detailed account of Vyjayantimala’s dancing body, enhanced rhythmic structures and her performance of folk as well as Bharatnatyam form reinforces national integration.

In the following chapter, using Henri Lefebvre’s argument based on a spatio- temporality of moving body, public intimacy and the movement vocabularies are discussed at length. Reading of dance movements through a body-space-movement framework becomes a crucial aspect. Iyer’s in-depth enquiry into the Sadhana Bose and Vyjayantimala’s presence in the films that necessitated the construction of film sets depicting a temple or court. The construction of Kotha or calendar art inspired sets facilitated sexual intimacy in public and private spaces. This spatial reading of dance furthers with feudal spaces of kothas versus illicit landscape of gambling in case of a cabaret number.

The spatial practices of the background dancers and the conventions of folk dance bring in a whole new set of dance vocabulary. Iyer stresses upon the choreographed, synchronised dancing of the background performers is not inspired singularly by Hollywood traditions of uniformly lined up chorus girls but also by Indian classical and folk traditions. Her insights are attuned to the sub-continental logics of capitalism and working-class women’s stake in South Asian modernity. That is, post 1990s with the arrival big budget and more industrialised production of dance numbers means that film style changes to a more ‘internationally aligned’ aesthetics of background dancers. In this case, working class women dancers in film are replaced by upper class Indian dancers trained at dance schools in the metropolitan cities.

Helen in a still from Caravan (Nasir Hussain, 1971)

The third chapter, “Corporealizing Colonial Modernities,” offers an enquiry into the new mobilities around what is understood as Indian modern dance. Iyer does this through detailed accounts of the careers of Azurie and Sadhana Bose and how their dance expressed nationalist constructions. Iyer’s lucid writing lays out nuances of women’s participation in dance and in cinema during the period of high nationalism of 1930s-1940s, when the cultural forms were under great pressure to address and appeal to a bourgeois audience. Through analysing the roles and the performances of the bhadramahila (“cultured lady”) Sadhona Bose and of the “dancing girl,” Azurie, Iyer traces the many debates at work around dancing women in these decades. In discussing the careers of both Sadana Bose and Azurie, Iyer foregrounds the ‘revival’ of dance forms during the late colonial period in India.

Both Azurie and Sadhana Bose owed their stardom to dance; however, Bose’s career as a performer found patronage in the narrative of embourgeoisement and nationalist project whereas Azurie’s career brings to the fore questions about the mobility and visibility of women dancers from the margins. As Iyer discusses the history of appropriation and reinstating of ‘respectable’ dance form, she traces the anti-nautch movement to ‘rehabilitation’ of temple dance. In so doing she emphasizes issues like de-sensualising the dance form and female agency through class and caste perspectives. The debates around self-censorship and denudation of erotic connotations from the screen and initiation of Bhadramahila—‘respectable’ woman— in Hindi cinema highlight figurations of dance, gestural genealogy and questions of caste in the late colonial period. The aesthetics and politics of dance move through all these contestations from the portrayals and acting of workingwomen to upper caste and class women. Iyer brings forth these nuanced debates through meticulous portrayal of the careers of Bose and Azurie.

Chapter four deals with the constructions of ideal femininity and participation of dancing women in the public sphere. Iyer looks at the evolving meanings of “classical” and “Folk” dance forms in post-colonial nation state. Waheeda Rehman and Vyjayantimala work towards a ‘sanitised’ image of dance in Hindi cinema. She shows how dance training influences acting repertoires. Both Waheeda Rehman, a Tamil Muslim and Vyjayantimala, a Tamil Hindu trained in Bharatanatyam, work their careers around dance and acting, while battling the stereotypes. Vyjaytanimala on one hand is perceived as an accomplished dancer, must prove her acting skills whereas Rehman considered a natural actor strives to fit the mould of a Bharatanatyam dancer.

Waheeda Rehman in Guide (Vijay Anand, 1965)

In her final chapter followed by Epilogue, Iyer extends the debates around cultural labour, sexual desire and public performance through diminishing lines between the performance of a heroine and a vamp in 1990s Hindi cinema. Hindi film actors of this period initiated a merging of the figure of a vamp and heroine through their libidinous dancing bodies. An interview with Madhuri Dixit provides an insight into the new scandalous dance vocabulary of dance, where this actress and her choreographer Saroj Khan consistently challenge conventions of ‘respectability’. In the discussion of contemporary television dance shows, Iyer points out the corporeal inhabitations, where the trained dancers perform same gestures back to Madhuri Dixit and Saroj Khan thereby building on intermedial dance careers in film, reality TV dance shows and on web platforms.

Madhuri Dixit in a still from Tezaab (N. Chandra, 1998)

Iyer’s work provides a corporeal history of dance in Hindi cinema by exploring dance’s discursive shift. Her thoughtfulness in attending to training, rehearsals, background dancers, and star career lets her trace a history of Hindi cinema through labouring bodies of women. This reinterpretation of Hindi film history from the perspective of women dancers is an inspiration to read a film corporeally, which offers a radical paradigm shift for the larger field of media studies.


Gehlawat, A. and Dudrah, R., 2017. The evolution of song and dance in Hindi cinema. South Asian Popular Culture, 15(2-3), pp.103-108.

 Gopal, S. and Moorti, S., 2008. Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Morcom, A., 2013. Illicit Worlds of Dance: Cultures of Exclusion. 1st ed. Oxford University Press.