Film Classical Dances of Lakshmi Gopalaswamy

Friday, June 17, 2011
Photo by Ragesh Vasudevan/Flickr
I'm going to stray from my usually-verbose manner and get straight to the point: Lakshmi Gopalaswamy is my favorite female filmi classical dancer of the current generation actively performing in films.  I think she is, quite simply, the best in terms of technical prowess!

In the 2000 and onwards world of film dance, we the classical-dance-loving audience have been left with little to delight in.  Certainly Vineeth has contributed some lovely performances, but what of the females?

Outside of the promising start of Manju Warrier (who gave a nice performance as the second dancer in this song from Thooval Kottaram but let marriage end her budding career), I've not been impressed with a single recurring female dancer in recent films until I saw Lakshmi's dances.

What I love about Lakshmi is that she is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer that actually transfers that training well to film.  It's refreshing to see someone with skill performing on screen.  Unfortunately, the dance choreography she's been given hasn't fully lived up to her potential for the most part.  More about her at the end of the post.

I now proudly present all of her film dances I could find in order from best to meh:

"Suma Saayaka" - Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal (Malayalam, 2000) - Lakshmi's exquisite audition dance here is yet another stunning example of the simple beauty of a woman in a sari practicing classical dance. She has perfect control over her body and quickly transitions from sharp moves to soft, graceful ones. The melodious and lilting music elevates the scene. How I wish the dance would continue much longer!  This is one I can watch over...and over... and yes, that's Bhanupriya doing the judging!

"Omkara" - Aaptharakshaka (Kannada, 2010) - Even though real-life male Kathak enthusiast Anuj Mishra outshines Lakshmi a bit in this dance due to his striking presence and choreography, Lakshmi still gives a technically-excellent performance and showcases her crisp posture and lines. It's too bad that the music is so repetitive that it gets a bit annoying at times!  As I mentioned in my post on classical dances in Kannada films, it's really a shame she didn't stick with Kannada cinema because it is really lacking in dancers...

Start 7:18

"Shyama Varnanu" - Black Daliya (Malayalam, 2009) - This stage performance is an absolutely perfect illustration of a good and bad dancer side by side. I'm sure you can guess who the good dancer is! While I can't comment on the correctness of her adavus or such technical matters, in the choreographical moments that are taken from Bharatanatyam Lakshmi forms beautifully-straight and erect lines with her torso and arms. She doesn't exxagerate her movements or facial expressions and exhibits such precision. Her dance partner, on the other hand, lacks control and flails her arms about. It is the control of geometrical lines in Bharatanatyam that make it so beautiful, in my opinion. And without getting technical at all, I could simply say that I enjoy watching Lakshmi's performance so much more on a basic, gut level.  It passes the "do I want to watch this again?" litmus test. It's too bad that the music and its technoey beat sort of ruin the whole thing, but just try to ignore it!

Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal (Small Happiness) is a dancer’s dream film! It tells the story of a housewife (Lakshmi Gopalaswami) who pursues her passion for classical dance but runs into conflict with her husband who feels she has ignored her family and her responsibilities. Through my perusal of the film it’s clear that this “ignored family” concept dominates the running time with lots of social theme scenes of dialogue, but the few times that she gets to dance are awesome! Beyond the audition scene above, here are the other two dance songs from the film:

"Shiva Karuda" - Why, oh why, did they have to add electric guitars and synth jazz elements to the haunting melody? Apart from the terrible music, I am enamored with the choreography here as it very skillfully takes inspiration from classical dances. One thing that strikes me is how Lakshmi's grounded control of her movements actually works to her detriment here because Bhanupriya's more filmified exuberance is more visually appealing with this kind of choreography.

"Ghana Shyama" - I thought the song above was uber tacky until I heard this one! It really takes the cake! The Kathak-based choreography here is pleasant enough but not a rewatch for me.  I think the music is ruining the whole thing...

"Ninne Ratri" - Namyajamanru (Kannada, 2008) - This is perhaps as close to an item number as Lakshmi can get! ;) She gets to prance around in a Bharatanatyam costume in front of a veena-playing (late) Vishnuvardhan. While much of the choreography is silly, the parts where she gets to actually dance clearly show her training. She's one of those dancers that has committed her training to muscle memory so well that she really can't break out of the mould even when given silly material like this--which I think is quite awesome. Too bad another dancer has to come in mid-way and spoil the fun!

By now you've likely noticed that Lakshmi doesn't have the ultra-slim look of many current young actresses; she has a fuller figure and a realistic woman's body shape that fluctuates in weight from year to year.  She also hit 40 last year and could pass for even older given her very mature look.  So in a way it feels a bit odd to consider her part of the "current generation" when she is only a few years away from Shobana's age.

I find Lakshmi's background very charming and interesting.  In dance, she is fully trained in Bharatanatyam and is quite active in the classical dance scene.  She performed at the Soorya Festival along with such artists as Alarmel Valli, the Dhanajayans, and the dancers from Nrityagram, and last I read she was performing in the infamous Chennai music and dance season in 2011. Many of her performances have been reviewed at The Hindu.  She seems to often perform with fellow actor Vineeth in fusion dance shows and tours which may be a part of her work with the supposed Indian Heritage Center. She's also been a judge on the TV dance show Thakadhimi!

In films, she debuted in 2000's Arayannangalude Veedu with Mammooty and won the Kerala state award for best supporting actress.  Since then she's acted in a variety of films, mostly Malayalam with a few Kannada, Tamil, and Hindi works including another state-award-winning performance in Thaniye and a best supporting actress Filmfare award for Paradesi.  In an interview at The Hindu (no longer viewable online nor archived), she sweetly relates how she started in Malayalam films because she didn't want to be recognized in her home state Karnataka and thought "Kerala was tucked away somewhere."  It seems she's stuck with Malayalam films due to her luck in achieving such success and her looking especially Malayalee despite being "100% Kannadiga." I'm impressed with her approach to films and charmed by her conservative values.

I'm just SO delighted to have found a modern dancer on film that is so talented.  Finally!  Note to directors: give her some better dance material and music, please!

Last, here are some links to some recent non-film classical dance performances of Lakshmi's: a very standard Bharatanatyam performance from Swarasaagaram (video no longer available), and some lovely slow choreography at FOMAA 2010.  Is it just me or does her araimandi seem kinda crappy?

For some more fun reading about Lakshmi:
Lakshmi Gopalaswamy- Goddess in the Hearts of Malayalees - Sulekha, 2009
Framed! - The Hindu, 2008 (no longer viewable online nor archived)
Lakshmi Plans to Devote More Time For Dance - The Hindu, 2010
Stepped Into a New Phase - The Hindu, 2007


  1. Minai, that's a very nice post about Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, who is also one of my favorite dancers of recent years. But I have to disagree with you re. your criticisms of the music in Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal. It's funny, because I'm the vintage film fanatic, and here I am defending electric guitars, etc., in an Indian dance film. But, look, electric guitars and synthesizers, etc., are part of the fusion style of Ilaiyaraaja. I think he actually has been a brilliant music director, for the most part, and as modern South Indian music directors go, I like him more than A.R. Rahman.

    Among the songs that seem to irritate you, I am quite fond of "Shiva Karuda." In fact, I can't imagine not liking it (unless you're some kind of classical purist or something :) ). I don't like "Ghana Shyama" as much, but, really, it's not that bad.

    Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on Ilaiyaraaja, where it discusses how he is very highly regarded for his innovations, etc.:

    Ilaiyaraaja also has had international influence... In fact, I first discovered his greatest soundtrack (IMO), for the film Thalapathi, by tracing back a sample in an M.I.A. song. :)

  2. Richard - Happy to hear she's also one of your favorite dancers. :) Though I am surprised that you like the songs that I vehemently hate! :) I think I dislike them so much because the synth sounds are very dated in terms of realistic quality. I used to compose music on a Roland synthesizer back in the late 90s (I still have it actually!) and it created realistic sounding instruments and departed wildly from the cheapo keyboard I had as a kid (which unfortunately sounds like what Ilaiyaraja used in these songs!). So perhaps it's really the choice of synth instruments he's used that I object to rather than their use themselves, as I think electric guitars and strings could have been integrated nicely had they sounded like actual electric guitars and strings. Pet peeve of mine perhaps? :) Although I guess I should tread more lightly when criticising such a respected artist as Ilaiyaraaja. :)

  3. Oh! Googled the M.I.A. Thalapathi connection and found your old blog post on the subject! :) At first I was thinking you meant her "Boys" song, but I see it's "Bamboo Banga!" Interesting, I did not know that! :) Edit: Oops, I meant Bird Flu!

  4. well you guys are both right.while illayaraja is a certified genius and some kind of an orchestral composer god, he has had many decades of composing music and some of those decades contain years of very indifferent music.

    how it worked was once someone developed into a visible talent(ARR, who worked with ilayaraja , VS Narasimhan...etc) their egoes would clash and they would leave ilayaraja. these songs in question probably were made when ARR (who was an extremely talented keyboard player..still is) left illayaraja , and he was a keyboardist short.

  5. Maybe its just bad sound recording too..

    vellai pura

    puthiya poovithu

    Mounamana neram

    this period of illayaraja's history was marked with not only bad synth, but also terrible rerecording(sound).

    these are some of illayaraja's early good use of the synth (even if minai may find some of them unrealistic )

    Nenjatthai killathe

    red roses

  6. ramesh - I should clarify that I wasn't intending my criticism of the Kochu songs to be a criticism of Ilaiyaraaja. Which is why I clarified in my comment that I have a thing about not liking synth usage when I get too fixated on visualizing the music director's fingers on the keyboard because the instruments are so abrupt and nonrealistic--but it doesn't have anything to do with Ilaiyaraaja. This would be a good time to admit that I didn't know Ilaiyaraaja was the composer until I read Richard's comment! I just simply don't like those Kochu songs, except for Suma Saayaka. That's all. So no one needs to be "right" or "wrong."

    But this is all very interesting discussion about Ilaiyaaraja. I've gathered from various things I've read that he was very pioneering in merging different musical styles with indian music, but didn't know much detail beyond that. Certainly folks with knowledge about raagas and such probably get much more out of his music than I do being ignorant of classical indian music specifics. I find it interesting that the last two links you listed sound appropriate for their time of composition (1978/80)- perhaps that's why I find it jarring when similar sounds are used in the 2000 Kochu songs.

  7. Ramesh, thank you for the interesting info about Ilaiyaraaja's keyboard players and the ego clashes. :) It's true that the sound quality of the songs you provided (i.e., as bad examples) isn't that good, but the music still isn't bad...

    Minai, I happen to think that primitive, pre-'90s synthesizers and sophisticated post-global-techno electronic equipment of the late '90s each had their own charms. :) (By the way, I'm curious about that cheapo keyboard you had as a kid. Was it a toy? Back in my teens/early 20s, I hung out with a couple of girls in an art-punk group who deliberately stuck to toy instruments. Later, my best friend among them formed a synth-pop band with higher production values that had a top 40 hit. It wasn't bad, but it was more fun when they played toy instruments. :) )

    Anyway, I didn't mean to imply that you were wholly criticizing Ilaiyaraaja or that you had to like the music because it was his. :) But when you talked about the "tacky" music, it seemed as though you were thinking these were people who couldn't have known what they were doing, and so I thought I should mention that this was composed by a guy who was something of a genius. :)

    BTW, the M.I.A. song that sampled Ilaiyaraaja was, indeed, "Bamboo Banga" (while "Bird Flu" contained a sample from an R.P. Patnaik score). The song was "Kaattukuyilu...":

    And, for comparison, here's "Bamboo Banga":

    My favorite song from Thalapathi is "Adi Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu," which could be Ilaiyaraaja's best ever (IMO, but for what it's worth, it also won some awards):

  8. Richard - Wow, your friends had a top 40 hit? Care to share the title? :) I certainly agree that "primitive" synth has its charms- the 80s would be a perfect example of such! :) My old keyboard wasn't quite a "toy" but rather one of those cheap Walmart keyboards that were about 2 feet long- the kind that enamors you when you're nine. But then later I got a Yamaha (not a Roland as I thought) that was full-piano-length and could reproduce just about any sound to real life (piano, guitar, strings) with pedal modulation. It was the coolest thing ever!

    And guess what I happened onto tonight that fits perfectly with this discussion? A tribute to Ilaiyaraaja on CNN-IBN from a couple weeks ago:

  9. Did you watch her in her latest film with vineet in "KHAMBOJI" in the song chenthar ner mukhi!


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