Brinda’s name is usually followed by the title “Master” – an indication of the respect accorded to her in the Tamil film industry.

The acclaimed and prolific choreographer started working as a background dancer at the age of 13. She later began assisting her brother-in-law, Raghuram, in South Indian films. (Her sisters, Girija and Kala, also share her profession.)

Brinda branched out on her own in the mid-1990s, and got her break with the Mohanlal-starrer Iruvar (1997), directed by Mani Ratnam. Brinda has since notched up a lengthy association with the filmmaker. Her other credits include Kaakha Kaakha (2003), PK (2014), OK Kanmani (2015), Pad Man (2018) and Daya (1998), which earned her a National Film Award for choreography. Brinda’s upcoming films include Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, Alia Bhatt’s next movie with Dharma Productions, and Anjali Menon’s Malayalam film. “As a choreographer, you need to know the technicalities of film as well; just dancing is not enough,” Brinda told Scroll.in.

You have been in the industry for almost three decades, and you are one of the most sought-after choreographers today.
I came to the field when I was 13 years old. It was a little tough in the beginning. Being a girl, it was not that easy to step into the field. I was introduced by my brother-in-law, Raghuram Master.

What drew you to choreography?
Since I was very young, I have been interested in dance. When I was in the 8th and 9th standard, I participated in a lot of Bharatanatyam shows. I joined as a background dancer in Vennira Aadai Nirmala’s troupe. We would dance for a month and then go to school, and this continued.

I had my doubts as to whether I would continue in cinema, because I am a very shy person. But once I became an assistant choreographer, I went ahead with it. My mom very often says that if you desire something too much, you will not get it. Things should just happen, and that is how dance happened for me.

Brinda on the sets of Kaatru Veliyidai.
Brinda on the sets of Kaatru Veliyidai.

How has the industry changed since you started choreographing?
Technology has improved massively. Nowadays you can achieve so many results through editing. In those days, we used to toil with our bodies. But now we toil and work with our minds. The physical strain has come down.

There used to be no monitors, and I remember peeping into the camera to see how the steps had come out. We could only imagine how the steps would come out with a 50mm lens or 100mm lens.

A lot of women are coming forward to choreograph. In those days, I used to be the only woman assistant director, and I remember being surrounded by men on the sets. Even going to the restroom was a problem because there used to be no caravans. From art direction to cinematography, there are women everywhere now, and that makes me so happy.

How have dancing styles evolved over the years?
It has changed a lot. The things that have not changed are Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kutchipudi. The classical styles do not change. There have been changes in other forms of dance and the cuts in body movements.

When the audience likes and enjoys a particular style, we keep giving it to them in subsequent films. But if they get bored after 10 films, we change it. As a choreographer, you need to know the technicalities of film as well. Just dancing is not enough. To know which camera angle will suit a dance form is important.

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Uyirin Uyire, Kaakha Kaakha (2003).

Please walk us through the process of how a film song is choreographed.
Take Mani sir [Ratnam], for instance. I have done around nine films with him. He tends to experiment with dance, and for a choreographer, that is a treat. A lot of these mass films have the same style, which is one folk song and a foreign location song. But when you think of filmmakers like Mani sir, Gautham Menon and other new filmmakers, they are really brilliant.

As a choreographer, I do not like to jump from a story. I do not like to choreograph steps just to showcase my talent. I try to choreograph only the movements that the story needs. In Mani sir’s films, there is a scene in a song and a song in a scene. He gives complete freedom while doing a song. There are very few filmmakers who have the guts to experiment, and Mani Ratnam is one of them.

Could you explain with a few instances?
Adiye from Kadal (2013) is fusion with a touch of classical. Musically, some notes are rock and jazz. I asked him [Ratnam] if I could do fusion choreography for the song, and he told me to go ahead. So I did whatever I could not do in other films and songs, and experimented with forms of dance that I liked. After he saw the choreography, he told me that it was fantastic. That, to me, was greater than any award.

In Raavanan, in the song Kodu Poatta, the style is more tribal. People rarely touch these styles in films. In Azhagiye from Kaatru Veliyidai, the dance needed to be without any formations. The dancers keep dancing in different directions. The idea was all Mani Ratnam’s. He wanted to break the format of standing in a straight line while dancing. I forced myself to choreograph the steps outside a straight line. It was very tough to do. Even when I had my doubts as to whether that would work, he assured me that it would be great.

How important is it to know the script?
You should never do a song without knowing a film’s script. There are a few songs that are shot on foreign locations in many Telugu songs. People initially used to just give us the brief that it was a love song. But things have changed and the school of thought has changed too.

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Adiye, Kadal (2013).

You have also worked with many prominent actors. Do you choreograph keeping in mind the star’s mannerisms?
Definitely. I just choreographed for Rajini sir in Kaala. I must go with Rajini sir’s body language. Even if he simply walks, it is stylish. Only when you choreograph for Rajinikanth can you work with a lot of hand movements more than leg movements. Hand movements do not look good on many actors.

For Kamal sir, there is no limit. You can merge movements of the hands, legs and the face.

Have you had instances where you have had to choreograph for average dancers as well?
In these cases, we wait and see if they are able to pull off the movements. We see if the movements suit their body language. When some actors are reluctant to change the movements even after knowing that they do not suit them, I keep a close-up ready and use that in editing.

See, I cannot act in films like them, can I? Not every actor is a born dancer. Choreographing what suits them is choreography.

Which songs have challenged you the most?
In Kannai Katti Kollathe from Iruvar, the dance is MGR’s style, but musically it is very Westernised. I still remember that one section in a song in which Mohanlal dances on an auto rickshaw. The music by AR Rahman was just at some other level. The challenge was to cope with his music.

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Balleilakka, Sivaji The Boss (2007).

AR Rahman is often known for complex tunes that begin in one place and travel someplace else. For instance, ‘Parandhu Sella Vaa’ from O Kadhal Kanmani’.
There was just one room and I had to complete the choreography in just that space. We were a little hesitant as to whether that would work. But once we started doing it and the artistes performed, it all came together. I think Mani sir is the only person to have put a jimmy jib camera in such a small room and shoot a song.

Rahman sir’s music has the quality of enhancing even a small movement on the screen. So among choreographers, there is a lot of competition as to whether it is Rahman or the choreographer who comes out with good work. I am not even near him when it comes to the quality of work, but his music makes us challenge ourselves and push our boundaries.

You have worked predominantly in the Tamil and Hindi film industries. Are there any differences?
In Bollywood, people do a lot of homework. We do the homework in our minds, but they do it on paper. They do all the shots after writing it down very clear. I really like that about the industry.

A style that you would love to experiment with in films?
Ballet, definitely. You don’t get to do that in cinema. Of course the style is mixed with tango for certain songs. So I try to mix that style in a few songs whenever I get the chance.

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Parandhu Sella Vaa, O Kadhal Kanmani (2015).