It really all started with Devdas, the extravagant Hindi period piece that was my third Indian film viewing experience. One of the main things I noticed in it and other later Hindi films was the distinct, beautiful dance styles of the actresses. Hands gestured in certain ways and postures and movements were defined along a similar plane. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, and it took a while before I discovered the connection of filmi Indian dance with Classical Indian Dance.
I had never seen anything as beautiful and as mesmerizing as Classical Indian Dance. I still haven't. It's vocabulary of movement was unlike anything I had seen, and I couldn’t believe that modern choreographers in the US were not more familiar with these forms and all the wonderful motions they prescribed. The dances I watched intently were so grounded and earthy. Rows of bells/ghungroos on the feet added another dimension to the dance as artists, particularly in Kathak, created intricate aural soundscapes with only their feet!
Dance in its Indian incarnation was a whole body experience: matching the rhythm of the music with the feet, creating beautiful pure dance lines and geometric angles with the body, telling stories with the gestural language of the fingers and hands, communicating emotion with the eyes and face… stunning. The carnatic/hindustani musical accompaniment was obviously incredibly complex with its intricate meters and percussion. On top of that, the costumes and fabrics and temple jewelery were the most beautiful thing I’d laid eyes on, surpassing even Balinese dance. I wondered- how had I never seen these art forms before? Artists like Alarmel Valli, Nahid Siddiqui and Sujata Mohapatra blew me away. The theatrical world of Kathakali and other Malayalee dance forms could take a lifetime to study. I became so obsessed that I had an entire YouTube channel solely devoted to uploading recent and archival clips of famous exponents of the classical dance forms. Unfortunately, my channel later got shut down due to a copyright claim. I like to dream that it's still floating out in between some microchips somewhere...
As I continued researching these dances and tried to distinguish between the forms, I sought other Indian films that featured classical dancing or were about classical dancers. I discovered a subset or subgenre of Indian films made with plotlines revolving entirely around classical arts such as dance and Carnatic music. They seemed to be more popular down in the south. K. Vishwanath was a director I kept reading about, so I blindly-purchased the highly-recommended Swarnakamalam. My love affair with South Indian cinema was kindled.
Swarna Kamalam (Golden Lotus) was made in 1988 and looks very dated and low budget. Yet, I simply loved it. In it, the houses were small and lived in, with dirt on the walls and unfinished floors. The women wore simple cotton saris and were shown just living their lives- getting ready in the morning, making homemade chapatis out in the sun, sharing their desires to have more money and marry well. It was realistic, and it was charming. Bhanupriya's character was mischievous, pissy, and simply didn't feel like practicing Kuchipudi dance half the time. She even humorously tries to throw her dancing bells down a well at one point so she won't have to practice anymore. :) I could sense that the film was perhaps reflecting a cultural shift at the time in which the younger generation was challenging or losing interest in the ancient art forms. As an American, I don't have a cultural precedent about this that I can relate to exactly, but it doesn't matter because the heart and soul of the film is about universal human concerns and emotions. I could identify with the characters and laugh with the jokes and get the gist of it all relying only on the subtitles! Regional cinema no longer seemed so cryptic and sacred and impenetrable.
Even more fascinating were the dances by one of my now-favorite artistes, Bhanupriya. She was quick and graceful and full of joy and life. Despite having an aversion to the ear-piercing levels of the female singers of the time, I fell in love with the songs and their melodious cuteness. "Akasamlo" was simply adorable, "Ghallu Ghallu" sweet, and the dances in "Siva Puja Ku," "Theeri Yashodaku,""Koluvaiunnaade," "Kothaga Rekkalu Vachena," and "Guru Brahma" were fab-u-lous. I totally understood how these could have been hit songs back in their day.
"Siva Puja Ku"
"Aakasamlo" - Cuteness personified:
Where then in the South Indian cinema world was I to go from there, I wondered! There were not nearly as many resources and recommendations for me to read about as there were for Bollywood, so I poked around on my own. One fine day I saw a bin of Telugu DVDs at a local Indian restaurant and picked a few that sounded good. One of them was, as fate would have it, the Telugu film Andhrawala. I browsed through it later that evening- a chubby male lead (NTR Jr.), overweight female costars, very bad production values. But then… the song “Nairey Nairey” came on and I was literally speechless. I kept rewatching it! This was what I now define as my first mass South Indian dance experience. There’s really nothing like group SI dances, and they’re even harder to describe with all the crazy leg moves and synchronized background dancer choreography. Too much fun! Despite being wowed, I still was discouraged by the bad production values.
"No, No, Buddy!" :D (Be sure to select 480p)
What happened next changed my life as I know it ;) - the Telugu film Desamuduru! Crisp cinematography! Slick, over the top fights! Beautiful locations! Silly comedians! And this sexy as hell actor named Allu Arjun! I practically melted into a puddle watching the song “Manasuley.” The dances were awesome; I was completely in love. WOW. Hot guys with chiseled bodies did exist down south! And the films could look as good as Bollywood! This film got me over the hesitation hump and I haven’t looked back since! From there it’s been an awesome journey from things as varied as artsy Tamil films to socially-relevant, bittersweet Malayalam films to kick-goonda-ass machete-wielding dance-off Telugu films. Mix, rinse, and repeat.
"Manasuley" from Desamuduru - pure fangirl service
Song and dance sequences continue to be my favorite aspect of South Indian films. I once thought Bhangra dancers were the most energetic performers on the planet, but then I watched kuthu street dance-inspired songs and changed my mind! Choreographers like Prabhu Deva and Raju Sundaram and Lawrence have created this distinct aesthetic that’s easy to recognize once you watch enough dances. In fact, I’m currently working on a South Indian dance fanvid to show it off. It simply ROCKS. Like, how did people think up this stuff? I love it!
Like the film Swarna Kamalam, things are more gritty and “realistic” down south. You tend to find more films about village life and underdogs and traditional value conflicts, all of which interest me much more than Hollywood-mimicing drivel. There is more focus on preserving traditional culture and classical art forms, and you see more saris and half saris and lungis and other traditional pieces of clothing wrapped and pleated in the grooviest ways. My search for films featuring classical indian dance was disproportionately filled with southies. In the films, the homes and streets look normal—I feel like I’m getting to see more of the “real” India, I suppose. That is until the hero annihilates an entire group of goons with his bare-handed prowess. :) Certainly the easy-on-the-eyes heroes like Allu Arjun or Vikram or Prabhas that all of us women-reverting-to-13-year-old-fangirls on the BollyWhat forum squee about repeatedly are of interest as well (exercising incredible fangirl restraint here...). And who wouldn't love the pure entertainment value of Telugu and Tamil masala films?
When I watched my first Tamil and Telugu movies in the theater with other Indians, I had a blast as the audience screamed and shouted and threw confetti and paper onto the screen as their favorite heroes debuted! Watching Magadheera with a bunch of crazed fans was an experience I'll treasure forever. :) The hero worship down south in the Tamil and Telugu industries is really fascinating to an outsider. I especially like the huge cutouts of stars as seen in the sidebar on the Film Zest blog. There's this ENERGY to southie films that I still can't even put into words. You know it when you see it, and it's addicting! I also love the very laid-back, casual atmosphere of all the bazillion film audio/pre/release/50 days/success meets. Film muhurats/puja ceremonies are another fascination to me as an outsider and another great example of the way religion intermingles with everyday life in the country. You just don't see it much in Hindi films! I wrote a post about it over on BollyWhat here.
South Indian popular film music is yet another aspect of SI cinema that I adore. After you listen to enough Hindi and South film music, you can tell a distinct difference between the two, especially with Tamil and Telugu songs. I am at present VERY partial to SI music with its gorgeous, raaga-influenced melodies and quirky compositions. More regional instruments show up in South Indian songs as well, and you hear gobs of off the hook rhythms using instruments I’ve still yet to identify. In fact, one of the very first things an Indian coworker told me back when I first got into Indian films in 2005 was “Hindi songs all sound alike, but Tamil songs are creative and different…and better.” She was from Tamil Nadu, of course. :) Since I’ve always been a person that focuses much more on music rather than lyrics, being able to enjoy compositions unfettered by potentially stupid lyrics is a joy. Indians might think a particular song is rediculous, but I can enjoy it completely oblivious! :D
Last, I feel like South Indian films have really enriched my knowledge of India as a whole. As we all know, the Indian film industry is much more than Hindi cinema. Likewise, the Indians that I meet in the US are not just from Mumbai, but also Hyderabad and Chennai and Trivandrum. I’m happy to be able to tell them that I know a little bit about their cinemas too. Though not everyone I meet is as equally enamored as I am. One of my good friends from Andhra just shakes his head at my love for masala films that he sees as “stupid” and tailor-made for the frontbenchers of cinema halls. Apparently these would be called "mass films," butI keep trying to tell him that I watch and love "class films" too like the thriller Eeram or the nostalgic Autograph.
Now, there’s also the fact that I enjoy Bengali films, but that’s for another post. :) And hopefully this all sheds some light on why I have such a rediculously pretentious blog title. :D
Here's a few links to some other groovy posts by my fellow non-indian indifilm bloggers about why they like Indian films (I'm probably missing some other good ones!):
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