4 November 2014

To a Different Drum

Last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:

The figure of the dancer has been the object of hypocritical censure, both in Indian society and Hindi cinema, for much too long. Surely, dance deserves something better?

When a self-taught dancer and choreographer makes a film about dance, surely one is justified in expecting some insight, or at least some feeling for dance? It is likely that Farah Khan is too preoccupied with ringing cash registers to listen to less celebratory noises coming from people like me - and anyway, as the fans/trolls never tire of telling us critics, I should have "left my brain at the door." But every film, especially one watched by as many people as Happy New Year, is a window to the way we think. By putting a bar dancer and a dance competition in the same movie, HNY held out the tantalizing hope of a bridge between two worlds that are usually kept far apart - the legitimate middle class dream nurtured by Nach Baliye and Dance India Dance, and the shadowy, subaltern domain of the 'ladies bar'. But then it went to reinforce the existing divide, even more starkly.

Perhaps I should back up a little. Dance is as much a child of Hindi cinema as music - but it has always received stepmotherly treatment. As a society, we nurture a deep-rooted set of moral judgements about dance. In the traditional framework of South Asian life, a woman who performed in front of men - whether her actual performance was erotic or not - was seen as sexually available. Patriarchy thus divided women into those who were marriageable - and those who could perform in public.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist reform attempted to 'cleanse' our classical performing arts, hunting down the tawaifs and devadasis who had been its most professional and talented practitioners, and bringing in middle class women to rid dance and music of its earlier taintedness. But as the ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom has argued in her recent book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys, the taint did not disappear. All that happened was that a sanitised sphere of classical performance emerged, populated by middle class people, while traditional performing communities were pushed into a more illicit zone.

More recently, as part of the packaging of Bollywood as a global cultural export, Bollywood dance has also achieved a new social legitimacy. Middle class women, diasporic and resident Indians, take classes in Bollywood dance. Weddings (even among communities that would have baulked at the idea two decades ago) now include a revamped version of the traditional North Indian 'sangeet': where typically, the young women perform specially choreographed items, but 'everyone' dances -- often even the bride. There are discomfiting moments in which here too, women feel compelled to put their bodies on display -- but on the whole, there is certainly something wonderful about this unprecedented freeing up of physical expression.

And yet, some 75,000 women performing the same kind of dances, clad in similar blingy saris and lehngas, in Mumbai's dance bars, were deprived of a livelihood for nearly a decade by a state heady with moral outrage. The ban was eventually lifted last year after the Supreme Court ruled against it, but the pro-ban lobby tapped into what was clearly a popular form of hypocrisy, distinguishing between different kinds of dancing women. Popular Hindi films don't just reflect that hypocrisy; they fuel it.

A complicated version of the patriarchal divide about dance has always been in play in cinema. At one level, especially in the early years, acting was itself a disreputable profession, considered wrong for girls from 'good families'. Then there was the question of image. While film audiences (like reallife audiences) wanted to watch women dance, the heroine's virginal image couldn't be compromised. She was, for the longest time, only allowed to skip around a bit, and invariably only with the man she was going to marry: the hero. Barring the rare (though crucial) tragic courtesan roles: Pakeezah, Chandramukhi, Umrao Jaan, the heroine wasn't usually a professional dancer. She couldn't be a tawaif, or a cabaret dancer. An early way around this hurdle was the filmy trope of 'cultural programme' -- where the heroine's dancerly talent could be showcased in the safe, civilised confines of an auditorium.

The bourgeois acceptance of dance went alongside the rise of classically trained dancers like Waheeda Rehman, Vyjanthimala, and later Hema Malini, Jaya Prada and Meenakshi Sheshadri. More recently, the focus is on a dance contest: Dil Toh Paagal Hai, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and now films like ABCD and Mad About Dance embrace more physically strenuous, professional practice. But films featuring bar dancers - and there have been many, from Madhur Bhandarkar's Chandni Bar to Benny Aur Bablu to Hansal Mehta's recent CityLights - do not dare suggest that they might actually enjoy their work. Or that it might involve any skill at all. This makes Mohini a radical departure. For her, dance is a passion: "Eajy lagta hai Mohini ka dance? Eajy nahi hai. Dance ek pooja hai. Art hai, art."

But then the film undercuts the pride she takes in her dance, by labelling her as a "saleable woman" and never apologising. It insists on a sob story that 'drove her' to this work -- denying, like most media coverage, the fact that most bar dancers were Bhantus, from North Indian communities where women have traditionally danced for a living, and where lack of patronage had begun driving them to sex work. It reinforces the idea that she only deserves respect if she dances for the country. And even when she does get what she wants -- a dance school where little children touch her feet -- it makes that seem cloying and ridiculous. The wait for a braver cinema carries on.

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