Is It All About the Hips?: Sangita Shresthova on Bollywood Dance (Part Two)

As you note, images of India in the west are often shaped by the legacy of orientalism. In what ways does the western response to Bollywood dance perpetuate rather than challenge orientalism?

To me the themes of nostalgia and orientalism have emerged as a bit of a paradoxical relationship in the case of Bollywood dance. On one hand, Indian dance has functioned, among other things, as a lesson in Indianness for first, second and even third generation Indian dance. Though less rigid in its adherence to protocols and certainly more hybrid in content, Bollywood dance has also approximated this function for Indian-American youth. The West’s growing interest in Indian dance both complicated and perpetuates these desires for Indianness as both are shaped by a particular imagined India. Both the nostalgic and orientalized gaze tend towards opulent and recognizably Indian movements, gestures and costumes. But unlike the nostalgic gaze, the foreign interest in India, particularly the one in continental Europe, sometime borders on a slightly condescending fascination with kitsch. To me, this labeling of Bollywood with kitsch and the slightly condescending (though perhaps well intentioned) interest that this generates is where the legacies of Orientalism are perpetuated through Bollywood dance. As I write in my book, I see Bollywood dance as unintentional kitsch.

Though very different in intention, Bollywood dance driven by nostalgia and Bollywood dance informed by orientalism can at times look very similar as they both tend to highlight a idealized kind of Indianness. That said, there are differences in the nuances of how these motivations for Bollywood dance manifest. These nuances, however, may only be intelligible to a very small percentage of audience-members.

In India, there seems to be a perception that Bollywood dance is too much influenced by western music and dance cultures, where-as in the United States, it is often read in relation to the politics of multiculturalism. What is it about the dances themselves which invite such radically different interpretations?

The simple answer to this question would be to say that, given the large number of Hindi films produced every year and the global reach of the industry, we should not be surprised that there are conflicting definitions of what Bollywood dance means and does. There is certainly some truth in this especially when we consider that the various narrative contexts of the song-and-dance sequences. Conservative heroines need to move in ways that are appropriate to their convictions. Worldly heroes need to demonstrate this through their globally informed dance style. Narratives demand that Bollywood dance incorporate many cultures and styles. Live Bollywood dancers can then just pick and choose the movement content that best suits their needs and preferences.

There is, however, a more complex answer that builds on this inherent narrative diversity. I believe that it is really the hybrid mixing of dance styles and cultures, which defined Hindi film song-and-dances since early days of cinema, that lies at the heart of Bollywood dance. This mixing also supports the various at times conflicting definitions of Bollywood dance. The hybridity of movement contained within Bollywood dances in turn allows people to pick and choose the elements that most reflect their personal preference and aspirations. This is why Bollywood dance can mean different things to different people in different contexts. The specific meanings associated with the genre of Bollywood dance can thus become extremely localized while at the same time remaining connected to the Hindi cinema’s international trends and flows.

As you note, one constant in the Bollywood cinema has been that the songs “have always been embedded in the narratives in Hindi films.” Yet, another constant, surely, is that the songs (and the dances, as you note) also circulate outside the film. What do you see as the relationship between these two different contexts? As you trace the way Hindi film music and dance circulates beyond the film itself, what aspects of the narrative significance remains and what gets redefined? What roles do the narrative context play in shaping the choices different dance schools make about which numbers are appropriate for their students to perform?

Yes, Bollywood song-and-dance sequences live outside films as much as they live in them. Hindi film songs (and the accompanying videos) are often released months before the actual film to help promote the film. The recent case of the surprise hit “Kolaveri Di” is an exceptional example of how effective this strategy can be. Notably, Kolaveri Di, did not actually contain any choreographed dance. The song spread quickly through the internet, garnering more than 37 million views in advance of the release of the Tamil language film 3 that it was composed for:

A portion of the many people who saw the song on Youtube.com (or one of its many response “avatars”) surely made plans to actually see the film when it is released in 2012.

Similarly, there are many instances when a song-and-dance sequence endures even as the popularity of the film that contained it fades away. The “Choli Ke Peeche” (What is behind the blouse?) song-and-dance sequence from the film Khalnayak (1993) is a perfect example of this.

That said, there are many layers of meaning within a song-and-dance sequence. Audiences who have seen the film that contained the sequence are more able to interpret the nuances in a song-and-dance that refer directly to the plot. If they are very familiar with Hindi films, they may even be able to pick up on some inter-textual references that connect that particular film and dance to other earlier cinematic works. Inter-textual references to other films, subplots and even real-life events outside the film’s narrative are quite common in Hindi films. Audiences familiar with neither the film nor the references that it contains are left to their own devices in interpreting a song-and-dance sequence that circulates outside the film.

Both the narrative and extra-narrative circulation of song-and-dance sequences have implications for Bollywood dance. Dance instructors need to be aware of the possible meanings that may be associated with any given Hindi film song before they teach it to their students. This seems to be particularly true to Bollywood instructors outside India where the appropriateness is a key consideration in choosing songs.

Given some of the cultural sensitive issues you discuss, and given the uncertain cultural status of Bollywood itself among intellectuals, what has been the reception of your book so far in India and Nepal?

In a stark departure from the scorn it used to receive, Bollywood has gained prominence in academic and other intellectual circles in India in recent years. There is even talk that it is now hip to study Bollywood! In that sense, I am happy to note that my book has been released at a good time and the overall positive response I have received so far confirms it. A few valid minor quibbles aside, the reviews of my book in both Nepal and India have been overwhelmingly positive. I have also been quite surprised with how much attention my book has garnered given the saturated book market in India. I have even been featured in Marie Claire! Flatteringly, the Sunday Indian said my is “a fine blend of in depth research, humour, and astute cultural sensitivity.” So far, the reviewers have also generally voiced a general agreement with the points I put forward in Is It All About Hips? In Nepal, a positive review of my book in the Nepali Times (a prominent Nepali weekly) elicited an interesting exchange in the comments section with some commenters suggesting that I was “another Nepali turned Indian” and that “Bollywood makes for some cheap and easy popularity.” Paradoxically, these comments actually confirmed my observations about Nepalis national identity and troubled relationship to India. As the Marie Claire (December 2011) feature on the book states: “Whether you love ‘em or hate them, the world cannot resist Bollywood.”

You can find out more about Sangita Shresthova’s work on Bollywood and dance at: www.bollynatyam.com.

Sangita Shresthova: A Czech/Nepali scholar, filmmaker, dancer and
media scholar, Sangita’s work has been presented in academic and
creative venues around the world including the Schaubuehne (Berlin),
AIGA Boston/ATE Massaging Media Conference (Boston), the Other
Festival (Chennai), the EBS International Documentary Festival
(Seoul), the American Dance Festival (Durham, NC), and Akademi’s Frame
by Frame (London, UK). She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of
World Arts and Cultures and earned a MSc. degree from MIT’s
Comparative Media Studies program where she focused on Hindi film
dance. Sangita is also founder of Bollynatyam (www.bollynatyam.com).
She currently works with Professor Henry Jenkins on questions related
to participatory culture, new media, and civic engagement.

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