‘Bollywood Dance’, it’s a Beast of a Genre

We tried to decode the Bollywood style of dancing
‘Bollywood Dance’, it’s a Beast of a Genre
‘Bollywood Dance’, it’s a Beast of a Genre

Cannes Film Festival 2024. Making their red carpet entrance is the cast of Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light, which won the Grand Prix Award. Chhaya Kadam, Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha and Hridhu Haroon decide they will dance their way to the theatre, giving the film festival crowd and attending photographers one of the most heartwarming displays that Cannes has seen in its 77-year history. There are saris, there are jhatkas, there are thumkas, and it is glorious. "Hum apni khushi aise hi dikhaate hain, kood kood kar (That’s how we show our joy, by breaking into dance),” Kadam would later tell PTI. Dance has been a primal way of expressing one’s self for humans, but few dancing styles capture excess, swag and abandon quite like Bollywood does. It’s a style that has absorbed from a staggering range of styles to develop an identity that shifts and shimmers like a kaleidoscope, always different and yet recognisably distinct.   

So, what is this dance style that we today call “Bollywood?”

“First of all, let me correct you. There's no Bollywood style as such,” said Caesar Gonsalves of choreography duo Bosco-Caesar, famous for picturising songs like “Señorita” from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and “Jhoome Jo Pathaan” from Pathaan (2023). “I think Bollywood predominantly is something that appeals to a larger audience or a mass audience, or something that is consumed or accepted or understood for its simplistic approach,” said choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant, who most recently had audiences dancing to her choreography for “Dhindhora Baje Re” in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani (2023). 

Jhoome Jo Pathaan from Pathaan (2023)
Jhoome Jo Pathaan from Pathaan (2023)

The Spectacular to the Personal 

South Asia has a long history of the song-and-dance routine, which has been a key part of Hindi movies ever since cinema evolved out of silence into its talkie era. As filmmakers and screenwriters developed the cinematic tropes and language that we today recognise as mainstream Indian cinema, the songs in a film were often the highlight of the movie-watching experience. Journalist Suhani Singh, who is also a long-time student of kathak in addition to writing about film and society for the magazine India Today, said that the first golden era of dance in Hindi cinema saw choreography that reimagined Indian classical dance. “B. Sohanlal and B. Hiralal were two brothers who changed dancing in Hindi cinema. You had not seen dancing like this in Hindi films.  ‘Aplam Chaplam’ from Azaad (1955) was one of the first songs which had these two young girls doing Bharatnatyam which became their breakthrough moment,” said Singh. Hiralal and Sohanlal created sequences that balanced traditional Indian movement with the requirements of storytelling. They also noticed someone in the crowd of back-up dancers who would become a Bollywood icon: Saroj Khan.   

Although Khan had begun her career as a small-time dancer with little formal training, it was as a choreographer that she would find fame. Before Khan brought a distinctive brand of cinematic flair to Bollywood dance, choreography for song sequences moved towards being more elaborate and outlandish. “When you say Bollywood style, I think of the Seventies and Eighties — typically there would be about a hundred matkas (pots) or 200 oranges falling from the hill — that was the genre choreographers like Chinni Prakash ji and Kamal masterji worked around,” said Caesar. 

Khan would rethink how choreography worked in a scene. “Saroj’s choreography was very lyrical and dance-y. She would be able to communicate the whole song through the movement,” said Singh. The choreographer’s collaborations with leading heroines like Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit Nene would produce some of the most iconic songs, like “Main Teri Dushman Dushman Tu Mera” from Nagina (1986), in which Khan used elements of snake dancing from folk traditions and melded them with shimmies and semi-classical fragments — all of which was delivered with grace and conviction by Sridevi who played an ichchadhari naagin (shape-shifting cobra). When you watch her sing, “Janam janam se teraa mera bair/Oh rabbaa khair,” it’s as much the body language you notice as the pure vengeance in Sridevi’s eyes. “For Saroj, the expressions were key,” said Singh, pointing to the detail that made Sridevi and Khan such a winning combination. 

“Main Teri Dushman Dushman Tu Mera” from Nagina (1986)
“Main Teri Dushman Dushman Tu Mera” from Nagina (1986)

Dance and Desire

Writing about Sridevi’s ability to infuse song sequences with characterisation in his book  Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, Satyarth Nayak said, “How she pretends to lose her balance or drops her mic on her foot. How she squints her eyes while singing ‘Soorat hi maine aisi payi’. It is these ‘song acting’ gems that make ‘Hawa Hawai’ quintessentially Sridevi.” They are also elements that were quintessentially Saroj Khan. “Obviously, a lot of people now have issues with the black face. But if you just watch Sridevi in it, she's just having so much fun. Saroj was not traditionally a trained classical dancer, and I think to a certain degree, she was able to make a movement vocabulary that was very quintessentially Indian,” said Singh. 

Khan was also among the first choreographers to Indianise the musical theatre tradition of stylised everyday movement. “Consider one of this choreographer's biggest hits: ‘Kate Nahi Katate Ye Din Ye Raat’ from Mr. India,” wrote Baradwaj Rangan. “You could see the hip-swaying, hand-on-chest "step" as the choreographic equivalent of the line ‘I love you’. Or you could just see a beautiful woman in a blue sari with a hand on her bosom, the expressions on her face (as carefully ‘choreographed’ as her steps) suggesting a thousand erotic possibilities.” The sensuality of this moment is not an anomaly. Khan lavished a heavy dose of sex appeal into her choreography, lacing every other gesture with desire and longing. “Personally, I never found Saroj Khan vulgar,” said Singh. “The reason actresses wanted to work with her was because she was very mindful of what they were comfortable with the joy that she brought in dancing.” As an example of the way Khan incorporated feminine desire and pleasure into her choreography, Singh gave the example of  “Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intezaar” from Sailaab (1990). “The way she (Khan) represents her (the dancer’s) desire through movement and does it without judging the woman, and actually making the audience appreciate the beauty of it — Saroj just cracked it,” said Singh. 

“Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intezaar” from Sailaab (1990)
“Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intezaar” from Sailaab (1990)

The Bollywood Spin

In 2008, NDTV Imagine had a TV show called Nachle Ve with Saroj Khan, where the veteran choreographer taught some of her most memorable choreographies to participating dancers. “Thodi si kamar chalana kyuki ye humari filmy kathak hai (move your hips a little because this is our filmy version of Kathak),” Khan said in the show, offering us a hint of how she simplified but also added a modern flourish to the classical dance tradition. “She (Saroj Khan) doesn’t understand Kathak as well as Birju Maharaj ji but she understands how to use the elements of Kathak in a film dance,” said director Sanjay Leela Bhansali in The Saroj Khan Story, a documentary on the choreographer by PSBT. 

Bhansali’s work has always featured Bollywood-ized versions of classical and folk dance forms. These dances are close enough to traditional techniques to be recognizable but "filmy" enough to appeal to a broader audience. Purists may question the authenticity of the choreography in songs like “Pinga” in Bajirao Mastani (2015), “Ghoomer” in Padmavaat (2018), and the mujras in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. However, the deviations are intentional and deliberate, aiming at both delivering both a maximalist aesthetic but also turning the intimacy of classical performance into a big-screen spectacle that works both in the cinema but also on the streets. 

Khan did not leave an assistant behind to carry her legacy forward, but choreographers like Farah Khan (who would later become one of Hindi cinema’s few successful women directors) and Vaibhavi Merchant followed in Saroj Khan’s footsteps. “The vocabulary for Bollywood dancing comes from the older masters and their interpretations of classical dancing,” said Tejaswi Shetty, dancer and assistant to Vaibhavi Merchant. “The nakhra (expressions) and the jhatkas and matkas (sharp, accented movements of the neck, shoulders, or hips) got integrated into the movement style of Bollywood because of masters like Saroj ji and Chinni Prakash ji,” she added.  

"Chaiyya Chaiyya" from Dil Se.. (1998)
"Chaiyya Chaiyya" from Dil Se.. (1998)

Everyday Magic

One of the most unforgettable examples of Bollywood choreography is in a film by a Tamil director which didn’t conform to any of mainstream Hindi cinema’s conventions, barring casting stars in the lead roles — Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.. (1998). "Chaiyya Chaiyya", featuring Shah Rukh Khan atop a train along with Malaika Arora Khan, was as dreamy as a song sequence could be. Choreographer Farah Khan and her team filmed the number atop a moving train between Ooty and Coonoor. There was no safety gear, which adds a different air of dangerous abandon to the restless, energetic choreography. While Malaika moves with a sinuous, languid grace that emphasises her perfect figure without looking obscene, Shah Rukh moves with an almost manic effervescence, pulling off moves that lean as much on cardio routines as the motions of a Sufi trance. 

Years later, in “Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Vaibhavi would use Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s natural grace when she included a move of the dancer pulling her hair aside for the lyric “Meri angdai na tute, tu aaja.” For this song, Merchant combined elements of mujra with Amitabh Bachchan’s distinctive dance style. “You might think it is focused on the audience, but the primary focus is the actor,” said Shetty. 

While in the era of Saroj and Farah Khan, actors tended to mould themselves to the choreography that was given to them, the next generation of choreographers moved towards conceiving routines that played to the specific strengths of the actors who would perform them. “Because I know Shah Rukh Khan sir's body language, I know Hrithik's body language,” said Caesar. “So I know what Hrithik (Roshan) can make look good and what Khan sir can make look cool. Our basic instinct is to follow the artist’s body language and what will look nice on them. If I get too excited about the hookstep which does not look nice on the artist, who's going to like it?” he said. “Our primary pursuit is style. It should look cool, and should have an inherent swag,” said Bosco. He summed up his argument with a simple motto: “If the actor can sell it, the audience will buy it.” 

Merchant argued that actors have always informed choreography with their personal style. “Through the years when Bhagwan Dada came in, he brought in his own style of dancing, right?” she said. “Then there was Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, he brought in his own style. Before that there was also Helen aunty and Vyjayanthimala — all artists and their expressions and their talent defines what Bollywood dancing is,” said Merchant. 

“Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2005)
“Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2005)

Driven By Stars

Hindi cinema, and the Indian cinemas that draw inspiration from it, has continued to experiment with various styles of choreography and dance. It works. Ganesh Acharya’s “Chikni Chameli” from Agneepath (2012) features Katrina Kaif performing a lavni-style dance that fuses Western body language with regional movements. Bosco-Caesar’s "Kala Chashma" from Baar Baar Dekho (2016) and the title song from Bang Bang (2014) stand out for their use of a hip-hop aesthetic. Describing their choices as “freestyle” and “commercial”, Bosco said, “For the first 10 years, we tried to come up with interesting and complicated choreography, but it is not about what is complicated, it is about what looks good, what looks cool.” He said it was impossible to break down the choreography process that the duo follows. “The point when you hear the song, what does your body make you do? You feel that. That becomes the vibe of the song. It's a response to the music,” he said. 

For Merchant, Bollywood’s ability to incorporate a variety of dance traditions and signature techniques makes it special. “Let me not just limit Bollywood dancing to a particular form or style. It has been a cumulative effort — accumulative experience of all these artists put together and their sensibilities and their expression, right? Of course, to aid, guide, and hone that talent you really need somebody to take the best out of that person. I think choreographers have predominantly done that over the years,” she said.

If there’s one thing that comes through in conversations with choreographers, it is that as a dance style, “Bollywood” is a beast of a genre, constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. It is bound by neither technicality or tradition, delivering complicated toe-twisters in one song and easily replicated dance routines in the next. It thrives on instinct and vibes, giving as much room to classical traditions as it does to the newest trend from the world of dance. And yet, despite refusing to be pinned down to any single style or aesthetic, “Bollywood dance” has grown into a unique and recognizable identity, embodying everything out there and nothing in particular. Its charm lies in its adaptability, in the way its practitioners are ready to incorporate new elements and the way fans turn it into something very much their own. So run around, dance, and if you can sell it, it’s Bollywood.

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