With the dance-based ‘ABCD-2’ vaulting over the Rs. 100 crore barrier, a reflection on choreography in Hindi films down the ages.
Had I been the kind who rated films, I’d have given Any Body Can Dance 2 (aka ABCD 2) two-and-a-half shrugs – but that’s not surprising. For one, this isn’t a film meant for anyone over twenty. It isn’t for those who don’t follow dance-based reality shows on TV. (I don’t.) And it isn’t for those who don’t care much about hip-hop dancing. Oh, as a physical feat, the choreography in the film is impressive, all right – it’s like the routines we applaud at the gymnastics competitions in the Olympics, feats of timing and precision and balance. But after a couple of song sequences, I tuned out. To my mind, this wasn’t exactly choreography. No – that’s perhaps unfair to the choreographers. Let me just say that what I look forward to in movie choreography is something else.
I find it difficult to watch many of the older songs, because the choreography is very basic – and seen today, boring at a visual level. Take Ashiana, from 1952. I pick this because the music is by Madan Mohan, whose death anniversary is coming up in a couple of days. Mera qaraar le jaa is a magnificent song to listen to, but on screen, it’s just Raj Kapoor sauntering about and mouthing the words. This isn’t to say the song is shot badly. It’s just that it’s not very interesting from a choreographic viewpoint – which is the case with most songs from the 1940s and 50s, unless the song was some sort of item song, featuring a well-known dancer. Sometimes, the actors skipped about in a large house (Koi mere dil mein, Andaz, 1949). Sometimes, they played the piano (Jawan hai mohabbat, Anmol Ghadi, 1946). Sometimes, they even danced (Ghar aaya mera pardesi, Awara, 1951) – though with that giant set, who really paid attention to the choreography?
You’re right, in a way, if you say these songs aren’t about “choreography” as such – these characters aren’t meant to be executing steps. But I speak of choreography in the larger sense, of infusing the song with the character of dance. Take Blackmail, from 1973. The actors don’t dance in Pal pal dil ke paas, but there’s an exquisite sense of rhythm throughout the song. There’s a motif carried right through – Raakhee reads letters written by Dharmendra, who hovers around putting those words into song. The concept is aided by the execution. Directors like Vijay Anand knew how not to make song sequences feel static, the way songs from earlier decades were. They kept the camera moving. They kept changing the setups. Even the letters are showcased differently. One of them is stuck in a tree. Another one contains rose petals. This is one of my favourite kinds of song sequence, where the choreography is at a conceptual level.
Then there are songs that employ concept-level choreography as well as dance steps, like Agar main kahoon, from Lakshya (2004). The song is about Hrithik Roshan teasing Preity Zinta – she wants florid declarations of love, and the slacker that he is, he can’t see why he should be bothered when it’s evident he loves her. So after some goofing around, the song begins with Hrithik reading the newspaper – he’s really that banal. Yawn, I love you, whatever. And she replies: Why don’t you spiff up what you’re saying? Why don’t you say this in a roundabout way? And the “steps” transform her words into choreography. She brushes off imaginary specks of dust from his shirt. She goes around him in a circle. As with classical dance, the lyrics are the basis for her actions. This song is an extraordinary instance of choreography – it warrants an essay of its own. As does Pehla nasha, from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). Aamir Khan waltzes with his… sweater, thinking of Pooja Bedi. Ayesha Jhulka sees him (her bedroom window is opposite his), thinks he’s thinking of her, and waltzes with… air. The intoxication of first love (from the lyrics) and the day-dreamy sense of time pausing when in love is reflected in the slightest amount of slow motion throughout. And all in the most mundane surroundings – their classroom, her father’s mechanic shed. It’s magic.
There’s just so much more to talk about. About actors like Shammi Kapoor and Govinda who are terrific at emoting (while dancing) in song sequences. About the pleasures of outré song picturisations – the rows of dancers around the Daliesque eye in O haseena zulfon wali, the dance on a train in Chhaiya chhaiya. About Helen. About dancing stars like Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman and Hema Malini. About Zeenat Aman’s early-70s pout, and how no other choreography was necessary. About the surprisingly agile Dilip Kumar in Nain lad jaihe. About the superb resurrection of the mujra in the recent Agent Vinod. (Again, note how the lyrics form the basis of the stylised movements.) About dance-based films like Pakeezah and Navrang.
Speaking of the latter, I have to mention Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shantaram’s spiritual successor. The man is such an outsized romantic, it’s not at all surprising that his films are practically wall-to-wall musicals. The characters speak in rhyme. They don’t act so much as do some kind of performance art. And the songs ratchet up this feel by several notches. Take Aankhon ki gustakhiyaan from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). A boy romances a girl from a conservative family during a wedding – it’s a clandestine affair conducted in the open. Or take the joyous burst of colour from the dancing girls in Chhail chabeela, from Saawariya (2007). Or take Tattad tattad, from Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), in which Ranveer Singh proved that today’s actors are no slouches when it comes to singing and dancing. In this multiplex era, when so many of our films strive for a globalised look and feel so as to not alienate non-Indian viewers, how wonderful to see such unabashed celebrations of song and dance, as if to remind us that this tradition is part of what makes Indian cinema Indian cinema.
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Other songs mentioned in the piece above: