Background Dancers Silsila
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Farah Khan was once a background dancer. So was Shahid Kapoor, and Sushant Singh Rajput. Remo D’Souza and Anurag Basu too began their lasting affair with cinema by dancing in clusters behind the stars, before they became what they are today- directors, choreographers, and stars. 

Being a background dancer almost feels like a springboard towards a more settled, better paid, and visible job. At least that’s the idea. Grand choreographed dance sequences were embedded in the DNA of our films. Background dancers, therefore, were always in demand. 

But as the decades groaned on, the films, which are now increasingly more “real”, are doing away with these big dance sequences. It seems like we have far fewer of them, and the ones that do prefer younger, fairer, more lithe background dancers. For a stark comparison just take a look at the background dancers in ‘Tan Tana Tan Tan Tara’ in both Judwaa (1997) and Judwaa 2 (2017).

Judwaa Judwaa 2

A dancer told me that as the actresses become taller, the shorter background dancers fall out of favour. Another, who is older, and isn’t considered for too many songs, chuckled,“Jab tak fit ho, tab tak hit ho.”

It was to understand this trend, and get a sense of the life and times of a background dancer, that I set out for the Cine Dancers Association (CDA), the union for background dancers, established in 1955. This was where background dancers would register and get a “card”. They would first have to fill out forms, and audition in front of a choreographer. Once selected, they would have to pay a deposit, and then wait for work. (It’s unclear if this process is still being diligently followed.) A deposit of Rs 3,25,000 is to be paid to become a card-holding member of the association. Before women used to pay Rs 3,00,000, but the men protested citing that women tend to get more work, and now they pay equally.

I expected the CDA to be an uneventful office. But as the door clicked open, I was hit by the nervous buzzing energy in the room. Preparations for a press conference were in full swing. Derick Biswa, one of the senior members of the Association, who himself was once a background dancer, asked me to come back the next day to attend it. He didn’t have time for my nostalgic questions. 

Now, if someone wants to become a background dancer, which association should they register with? For 65 years, it was the CDA. But the future now looks uncertain.

The press conference was organized by CDA, and attended by about two dozen background dancers, mainly young, muscular, toned, wearing bandannas, tinted sunglasses, pirated high fashion brands, and fanny packs, jostling each other, craning their neck to get a view of the choreographer Saroj Khan, brand ambassador of the CDA. The PR person was getting visibly anxious. All the noises of the plastic chairs shifting was making it hard to hear Khan’s feeble voice as she was addressing the press. 

Here’s some context: Two committees of the CDA are fighting a case in front of the Industrial Court to determine which of them is constitutional. This case has been languishing in the court for over a year now. Many dancers told me about how the CDA came to a standstill due to this. In the interim, they made Saroj Khan the brand ambassador in November 2019, and promised free education to girl children of background dancers and a discounted deposit for progeny.

Over the years, the CDA negotiated higher wages, it would become 45, then 108. Now, a background dancer is supposed to be paid Rs 4,500 per 12 hour shift, and Rs 750 per 3 hour dance rehearsal. 

But the press conference itself was for a different reason. In the midst of this mayhem, Ganesh Acharya, another famed Hindi cinema choreographer, had started his own association, Indian Film and Television Choreographers Association (IFTCA). (Acharya has been recently accused of forcing a woman to watch adult videos, and depriving her of work to which he has filed a counter-complaint.) Now, if someone wants to become a background dancer, which association should they register with? For 65 years, it was the CDA. But the future now looks uncertain.

CDA Background Dancers

Both Acharya and his father are products of this association. Khan became a member of the association at the age of 10 as a group dancer for the film Howrah Bridge (1958); her first song was ‘Aayie Meherban’. She was paid 26 Rupees and 4 Anna for 8 hours of dance back then. 

Over the years, the CDA negotiated higher wages, it would become 45, then 108. Now, a background dancer is supposed to be paid Rs 4,500 per 12 hour shift, and Rs 750 per 3 hour dance rehearsal. 

Today, over 900 dancers are registered with the CDA. Many of them became card holding members by learning and working under Ganesh Acharya, whom they kept referring to as Ganesh master, or Ganeshji. They stood wary of me as I asked them about their life, struggles and hopes. They didn’t want to say anything that could hurt him, but neither did they want to say anything against the CDA of which they are members.

Background Dancers

The older ones were afraid they would not get the deposit if the split deepens. They were already tired of the irregular payments, calling themselves “daily wages wale” instead of artists. Many of the young dancers I met that day don’t dance anymore, or nearly as often, choosing to do theater or television, or even make-up, where the pay is more regular.

The uncertainty of the CDA’s position worries all the dancers who now lull uneasily about the future. Acharya  is one of the most sought-after choreographers today (‘Malhari’, ‘Aankh Maarey’, ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Hawan Kund’); it is unlikely he will yield. Khan, on the other hand, rarely choreographs songs. (The last song she worked on was ‘Tabah Ho Gaye’ from Kalank). She jokes about standing in line with all the dancers looking for background dancing gigs if bad times befall her. The jest moves people to laughter, but the deeper insecurity registers.

She concluded the conference by looking at the agitated dancers, proclaiming, “Yeh sab mere bachche hain, inko maine dance sikhayi hai.” The audience cheers her on, and she grins ear to ear. She says she will talk to all the actors and all the choreographers. For a second, it looks like there is hope. If only hope was enough. 

Aaja Nachle

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