Readers Write In #85: The Dancer Upstairs, and the Actor Beneath….

Posted on July 7, 2019


(by An Jo)

An engineering back-ground warrants me to put in certain key pre-conditions:

  1. I understand, read, and write [write to varying degrees] only 4 languages: Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, English, Urdu. I can speak some broken Punjabi and understand it.
    2. I do not understand languages of Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. [In other words, apart from sharing the common Indian milieu, I am totally at the mercy of sub-titles in consuming movies made in the languages that I mentioned I do not understand: Hence, I can surely miss the subtlety that’s associated with a specific gesture or an act that belongs to a specific region/language.]

I have always wondered about the proportionality, inverse or direct, of an actor’s excellence with regard to acting abilities vis-a-vis the facial expressions when it comes to an actor excelling in emotional, comic, or ridiculous out-of-the-humanly-world sequences and that of his or her dancing abilities: In that context, let me start with the actress who is believed to be an impeccable actress as well as an accomplished actress. I have not much respect for Sridevi as an ‘actress’: Her shrill voice and irritating mannerisms put a barricade between me and the screen to mentally process her so-called brilliance. Where her brilliance shines through, though, is where her real-life irritants meet her characters on screen. Who the hell could have enacted Sridevi’s brilliance in fighting an auto-rickshaw driver’s arrogance and then to shift over to her buying clothes in a pre-economic liberated clothes’ store in AP? [Obviously, Brahamandam’s terrific act here in trying to balance his spiritual conflict with regard to encouraging an Engliss-speaking, dirty-clothes wearing fair-skinned woman with a cinematically-defined uncouth Venkatesh is an icing on the cake.]And then she has this song to boot – a perfect symmetrical joint between the character she’s playing and her dance steps.

I do continue to claim that Madhuri Dixit is the best Hindi cinema has embraced since Nargis, Nutan, and Sridevi. Madhuri is a classic example of one’s dancing abilities helping in bettering one’s expressions in any scene. Here’s a scene of her in the under-appreciated rip-off of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, KHEL: Just pause a moment — and mainly so since she doesn’t pause– and look at the fluidity of her expressions pre-and post this song when she instinctively/instantaneously changes her expression from cabaret to a more ‘suitable’ bhola-bhaala bhajan format. What a stunning transformation! [It’s a moot point; but I am still making it: An actor need not bask in high-octane scenes to show his or her command over the skill: just a glimpse is enough. Madhuri as mentioned before, and Amitabh of course here.] Her classical dancing abilities, are of course, well captured in film-history. Her filmography will always be placed beneath that of Sridevi, and perhaps rightly so. But talk of raw talent [in a film where folks would literally buy tickets to watch only Madhuri shimmy to EK DO TEEN, she comes up with these expressions: How’s that for some pathos and longing?], and she can never be placed beneath any modern-day actress.

Let’s now go to the greatest in Hindi cinema Amitabh Bachchan; the man who re-defined dancing with the crudest steps ever imaginable after Bhagwan Dada. Amitabh, as magnificent as ever, transcended his limitations to extra-ordinary emotive abilities, the debates of such nature, that render literally pointless. Look at the grand-fatherly fables here conveyed through dance and weird steps that would put Aesop to shame. He just stands and delivers here – and maintains the tonal consistency of his character, through-out the film.

Now let me come to the finest dancer after Kamal Hassan; Hrithik Roshan: Does he enrich himself when he dances and moves the story forward? I believe he does not – based on, merely, my perception. He is a classic case of an average actor whose capacity is climbing Nandi Hills but still, for the vanity roaring in him, wants to prove that he has it in him to climb Mount Everest as well: Nothing wrong in trying – but remember, you are being watched!! When you try to brown-paint yourself and try pointing the middle finger at each and every instance when you howl in a rather fake acquired Bihari accent” राजाकाबेटाराजानहीबनेगा; जोहकदारहैवोही banega!, you kind of give it away. The promise that was supposed to be delivered, was never met, except for some sparks of brilliance, very, very minor ones at that. He’s still a true-blue superstar when it comes to films that rein in the stardom quality in him; but when it comes to his vanity projects like GUZAARISH or the upcoming one, it is off-putting.

So, what’s the thought? Do better dancers make better actors? Is it even required? I have had the fundamental log-book that better an actor is with dancing and facial expressions; the better he or she is with the fundamental job of ‘acting.’: However with actors like Amitabh, Mohanlal, Mamotty, Naseer, Aamir; – with the exception of Hassan who is an exceptional dancer – you do see these anomalies. Shah Rukh with his terrific energy in Dil Se; Aamir in Rangeela – by far his best performance in his kitty – and later in Ghulam are very able dancers and more emotive in scenes than in their dances. But they can make you believe in their moves when they dance even though they aren’t as gifted in dancing as Hassan or Roshan or Madhuri.

There’s nothing left to write on Haasan except that perhaps, in some of his ‘iconic’ movies post-NAYAKAN, I think he fell into that trap of convincing himself first, and then the audiences, that over-acting is ‘better-acting’ and with his love for prosthetics really showing up high, those kind of scenes – him slipping down the pole like a lizard when he hears of Ganesan’s death in THEVAR MAGAN or the cry-out-loud scene on the stairs in MAHANADI, they really looked bloated where a pulling-oneself back kind of act would have been far more hard-hitting for the audience. But look at how he’s pulled back into form with VISHWAROOOPAM part 1 and PAPANASAM. PAPANASAM, especially was a tall order because he was working in a film that had at its original, perhaps, India’s most effortless superstar/actor ever, Mohanlal. Hassan shed his ‘super-star mannerisms’ like a snake shedding its skin and came up with a master-class. But going back to the theme of this article – he revealed his greatness again in this song. Look at his expressions here where there’s a role-reversal and his embody Radha rather than Krishna: Each and every facial expression, a turn, a twirl, is feminine to the core with absolutely NO hint of any masculinity, anywhere, anytime. [Check out his facial expression even when he enacts Radha removing her bangles.] And the icing on the cake is, of course, in the action scene where he literally ‘uproots’ his femininity.

And I don’t even wish to explore Hollywood territory vis-a-vis CHICAGO’S Gere or Hugh Jackman: Their cultural milieu and the ‘musical’ format doesn’t let the audience delve into this kind of a debate. Ours, on the other hand, I believe has a rich three-some going on between the classical arts and — for lack of a better phrase — those ‘cinema-dance’ steps and an actor’s expressions…