It can be lonely, being a Hindi film bhakt while living in Los Angeles, the epicentre of the Hollywood film industry.
For a while, I used to rely on video stores in Artesia (LA’s Little India), or on the rickety shelf of DVDs hidden in the back corner of my local desi grocery shop, supplemented by occasional trips to Naz 8, southern California’s dedicated Indian cinema (sadly shuttered in 2013). Every trip to India required a special shopping trip to stock up on stacks of movies. For years, every time a friend or relative was travelling between the two countries, I demanded they bring me the latest issue of Filmfare magazine.
About five years ago, I discovered Bollywood dance classes, and it was love at first step. I reluctantly studied both bharatanatyam and ballet as a child, though I only learned to appreciate both years later. What’s more, my brain is practically marinated in film songs. Bollywood dance connected a lot of dots for me. These classes are starting to become “a thing” in American dance studios, proffered alongside hiphop, bellydance, and flamenco classes. Too often, they resemble jazzercise-but-with-mudras, although there are a few that honour Hindi film dance’s complex and hybrid roots in Indian classical and folk and western popular dance styles.
Within the last decade, it has become exponentially easier to get my fix. YouTube was the original, and still the best way of watching old favourites and discovering new music. But now, Hindi films are gradually beginning to filter into mainstream cinemas, although which titles get a release in the US is baffling and inconsistent. Free digital streaming sites have also started springing up bringing us the new releases within weeks or even days (these sites claim to be 100% legal, and as a consumer, I choose not to question these claims.)
When I talk about the movies I love, I am usually met with blank stares or, worse, with a slew of assumptions involving outlandish plots, low production values, and cringeworthy stereotypes about Indian culture. And while I can’t deny there are plenty of films that bear out those assumptions, they are only a tiny part of a much larger phenomenon.
Full disclosure: my heart belongs to the movies of the pre- and immediate post-independence era, when most of the movers and shakers in the Bombay film industry were affiliated with the Progressive Writers Movement and/or the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and many popular commercial hits arguably did double duty as both high art and Socialist propaganda.
But I also have a healthy appreciation for the cheesiest, sparkliest, most slapdash masala frippery that, to most Americans, is synonymous with Indian cinema. Song and dance, of course, have always been an integral part of Hindi films, and Bollywood’s calling card to the rest of the world.
I have created a list of representative favourites without any particular agenda, and it is far from comprehensive. I deliberately left out a few canonic songs because I felt they were too obvious, and I included a few that come from movies I don’t actually like. One of my main areas of interest is in the ways in which folk theatre and folk performance traditions are reiterated and reinterpreted through modern media, and that interest is probably very evident here. But my main criterion was simply to include songs that show some great dancing.
Sajna Saanjh Bhai Aan Milo, Roti (1942) Featuring Kathak legend Sitara Devi, in an example of the aforementioned popular film as Socialist propaganda (the guy who breaks out laughing at the end of the song is a sutradhar/Greek chorus-type who functions as the Voice of Evil Capitalism).
Aplam Chaplam, Azaad (1955) Impressive technical precision combined with freewheeling fun, for arguably the best and liveliest example of Bharatanatyam on film.
Kaho Jee Tum Kya Kharidoge, Sadhna (1958) The lyrics may be Sahir Ludhianvi at his most scathing, but the choreography is fluid, intricate, and elegant. While watching this, my hands involuntarily start to imitate Vyjayanthimala’s.
Ooi Maa Ooi Maa Yeh Kya Ho Gaya, Parasmani (1963) The thing that makes Helen superlative, apart from her obvious charm and skill, is the fact that she always looked like she was having an absolute blast. This track definitely makes my list of the top five Helen songs.
Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaro, Teesri Kasam, (1966) Waheeda Rehman is my dance idol and total girl crush. Maybe she’s a bit too dainty to be fully convincing as a nautankiwali, but I love the simplicity of her songs in Teesri Kasam – no glossy production numbers, just the dancer and the stage.
Muqabla Humse Na Karo, Prince (1969) Helen and Vjayanthimala deliver a master class in several of the distinct Indian and international styles that inform the film dance genre. Plus, who doesn’t love a good dance-off?
Dilbar Dil Se Pyare, Caravan (1971) In compiling this list, I knew I wanted to include a song from Caravan (mediocre movie, terrific songs), but I debated over which one. I chose this one partly because it makes me laugh, and partly for the weird mix of carnival atmosphere and looming menace.
Megha Re Megha, Lamhe (1991) I love a good classic rain song and this one ticks all the boxes (swings, parched earth) in the form of a very pretty folk dance.
I wanted to round out the list with a few recent songs, but I found it surprisingly difficult to choose. I ended up rejecting several that I love, because instead of emphasising grace, technique, and choreography, they rely on fancy editing and large and enthusiastic crowds.
Until the 1970s, it didn’t matter that a lot of stars really couldn’t dance. The heroine and the vamp were two distinct archetypes, and since the heroine was far too chaste and demure to shake a leg on the dance floor, the best songs frequently went to the item dancers. That convention went out of fashion long ago, and stars now routinely perform their own dances, but unfortunately a lot of them still aren’t actually very good at it. But there are some notable exceptions, and here are two of them.
Dola Re Dola, Devdas (2002) Another song featuring strong classical inflections, the intricacy of movement makes this a standout. Madhuri Dixit has no obvious successor and may yet turn out to be the last of the truly great film dancers. Long may she prosper.
Dhoom Again, Dhoom 2 (2006) This is the only song I’ve included that is led by a male dancer. Hrithik has joints that stretch and snap like rubber bands, and the number is also notable for its impeccable synchronisation and sheer energy.