Director: Stanley Menino D’Costa
Cast: Sooraj Pancholi, Isabelle Kaif, Rajpal Yadav, Waluscha De Sousa
Sooraj Pancholi’s character kills it on the dance floor, literally. He picked up his dance partner for a lift, and she fell and she died. He’s traumatized. In the climax, to exorcize himself of this guilt, he strips off his shirt and scrubs himself on the floor to a trippy Shiva-themed song in the background. He’s cured. Who says dance therapy is hogwash?
Time To Dance is set in Bradford, UK. The city is famous for being one of the first where Hindi movies were shown in theaters. In 2009, it became the world’s first UNESCO City of Film. The 2018 film Gold was one of the biggest to be shot and promoted in the city, with the city literally turning gold for its release. But this movie says nothing of this fixation with film, instead giving its attention to competitive ballroom dancing, best described ironically by a side-character played by Rajpal Yadav as “angrezon ka dandiya”.
Sooraj Pancholi plays Rishabh, a street dancer and a waiter, while Isabelle Kaif plays Isha, a ballroom dancer and teacher at her dead mother’s debt-drowned dance academy. The dance form is an explanation for their class difference because nothing else is. They dress, comport, and live among similar luxuries, if only Rishabh has a roommate in a capacious brick-lined apartment with a view of the city. At one point Rishabh tells a doctor who is suggesting an expensive surgery to not worry about money. The same can be said to us, the audience. Money is not the central conflict here.
The film conspires to have Rishabh and Isha perform together and win the local ballroom dancing championship. What do they get by winning? There’s no talk of money here too, but there is a sense of fame because, for some reason, the BBC and CNN pick up their headlines from the goings-on of this competition. Anything remotely related to it becomes viral with a finger-snap ease. Everyone’s invested, apparently. So at least there is something at stake. But the film is so uninvested in whether they win or not, that the end credits roll as soon as their final dance performance ends with an ecstatic final pose. Their winning and the confetti cannons blow up in a small inset screen. The point of the film isn’t that they win but that they danced to win. The catharsis comes from them performing, and not them winning. But there’s a hiccup, well, a few hiccups.
Pancholi and Kaif are so busy trying to look poised and beautiful, and this is very clear in their close-ups, that they forget to be anything else — invested, affected, moved.
Pancholi and Kaif are both earnest, but awful actors. Time ToDance is an earnest, but awful film. Awful because the faces, and the story is unable to register any extremes of emotion that are on paper — and there are a lot of extremes including death, debt, and disability. Earnest because there is a sincere belief that this is a good film, that this is good acting. Not going to lie, the sincerity rubs off in places, where instead of squinting the eyes in critical fury, I sympathized with them. Both Kaif, strapped with heels on the dance floor, and Pancholi, adorned with cut abs, might be lovely dancers, poised with grace and an ease. But the choreography is so boring, its drama entirely comes from the flounce and frills of the dress. The most tension I felt over the course of the film was worrying about a loose piece of fabric tripping up the dancers head-first.
There is, however, in the climactic dance some shoulder-joint defying moves, but to be awed and to be moved are two different things. Pancholi and Kaif (who makes her debut with this movie) possess the chemistry of siblings. They are so busy trying to look poised and beautiful, and this is very clear in their close-ups, that they forget to be anything else — invested, affected, moved. Isha’s dance academy might go under but her face registers the visual equivalent of an Oh-Hmm. Rishabh is apparently in love with her, or likes her, or thinks she’s beautiful, or is obsessed with her, but there is no way to find out.
This is the kind of universe where things just become viral. Where grief expresses itself as a Punjabi song, despite the character being from UP. Where the rich are indistinguishable from the poor, the hustle indistinguishable from the languorous gaze towards the horizon. There isn’t even a satisfying training montage as they get ready for the competition. The closest is Isha’s sister dramatically intoning, “The body is going to break down. Muscle fatigue, ligament tears, spinal injuries!”
There is also the angrezi chudail, straight off of Subhash Ghai’s film school. Even her name, Lady Harriot, drips with Komolika energy. She literally comes to the hospital when Isha is injured to tell her that she drank too much and deserved the injury. In the end, to discourage Rishabh from performing she shows him his own wikipedia page where in red it is highlighted that he has PTSD from his dance partner’s dance-death.
On the other hand we have son-of-the-earth BHU educated Rajpal Yadav. Man with a golden heart and infuriatingly mother-tongued, Yadav is the only easy presence in this film. To watch him is to watch aged expertise, making generations gag with superlative timing, and a lived-in character building. To watch him along with Kaif and Pancholi is to be dismayed at his secondary track. That abs and beauty can make a hero, but only acting makes an actor. But who wants an actor when you can have a hero, abs, a perfectly stitched hairline and everything included.