The dandiya-raas, along with numerous musical and dance step iterations, hasfound its way into a number of Hindi films, but the traditional garba – no dandiya sticks, no disco beats – is rare. Saraswatichandra (1968) gave us the popular Main Toh Bhool Chali Babul Ka Desh, which had a traditional garba tune but the dance veered off in various non-garba directions.

Garba enthusiasts, including troupes that perform during Navratri, improvise liberally on the music as well as the dance steps – there is now a baffling range of contemporary garba styles. Some of that improvisation can be seen in Dholi Taro Dhol Baje in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Nagada Sang Dhol in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. Both bore the stamp of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s extensive experience in garba choreography.

One of the more authentic garba versions is in Mirch Masala (1987), Ketan Mehta’s feisty drama set in rural Gujarat. Dholi, Dhol Re Baja is set to the tune of the original Gujarati Dholida Dhol Re Vagaad, Mare Heench Levi Chhe. Beginning with a slower two-clap (be-taali) step, the song quickly accelerates to a pace that has the dancers swirling in a near-frenzy.

Garba is traditionally performed only by women, but the drummer, and often the singer, are men. The drum plays a key role, summoning the dancers and setting the pace for the dance. Many garba songs, therefore, refer to the drum (dhol) as well as the drummer (dholi).

The garba is a defining moment in the plot, establishing the dynamics between the protagonists and hinting at the crisis ahead. As the women of the village dance, the men watch, and among them is the newly arrived subedar, played by Naseeruddin Shah, who’s had his eye on the beautiful, spirited Sonbai (Smita Patil) for a while.

As the rhythm settles into the standard garba beat, there is much strutting and twirling of moustaches among the male audience. The subedar brazenly leers at the women even as the other men, including the village headman, look on – it is clear that he’s here to show them who’s in charge and what he’s after. The men quickly gauge the visitor’s intentions. The dancers appear unaware. For them, this is freedom from drudgery and from the innumerable little oppressions that define their lives.

The dominant reds in the frame – the dancers’ chaniya-cholis, the men’s turbans – are evocative, perhaps alluding to the fiery theme of the film. As the tempo picks up and the dancers move faster, the manic gleam in the subedar’s eyes grows brighter and his grin wider. The story of his malevolence and Sonbai’s defiance ends in a blaze of red, but for now, the dancers sway and spin happily, one with the music and the heady rhythm.

Mirch Masala (1987).