Little did I realize that researching that question leads to the fascinating and complex topic of the depiction of the British empire in India and the British Raj through cinema and television miniseries released back to the early 1900s. There was practically an entire genre of adventure and action "empire films" in the 1930s made by the UK and the US, and the 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in India as evidenced by the many films and lavish miniseries released about the subject. Critical to my research have been sites like these which give excellent lists of empire films and films about India: The British Empire in Film, and The British Empire.
|From Kim (1950)|
For some fascinating reading on the subject, I would recommend the following books which you can preview much of on Google Books: Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema, and Cinema at the End of Empire: Politics of Transition in Britain and India; these look to be interesting books too but aren't available for preview: Outsider Films on India 1950-1990, and Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Empire Cinema.
|From Der Tiger Von Eschnapur (1938)|
I've selected dances mostly from Western historical films about India due to their serious or propagandist attempt at presenting India's history and showing (or not even bothering to research and show) authentic, classical-based and/or courtly dance forms. Modern films like The Love Guru or Marigold with lighthearted or modern "Bollywood" dances have not been included nor have documentaries like Louis Malle's Phantom India because the concern here is about authentic Indian dances being presented in constructed, artistic accounts of the past.
The most authentic and beautiful dances in Western historical films and miniseries about India seem to be found in productions from the 1980s with the exception of 1951's The River. The 80s saw a resurgence in interest about India in the UK and the US that was reflected in all the releases about the subject (or perhaps because of the releases?). Think The Jewel in the Crown (1984), A Passage to India (1984), Peter Brooks' The Mahabharata (1989), Gandhi (1982), and even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). What was it that led to such a Western fascination about India at that time? Whatever it was, I'm glad it happened because productions of this period finally featured some decent Indian dances to show to Western film viewers.
The question remaining is why were these 80s productions leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors in presenting Indian dance with degrees of authenticity? I think the answer lies obviously in the motivation of the films production. A 1930s film was concerned with presenting an exotic India and probably never bothered with researching the authenticity of "base" dance forms. Understanding what the 1980s films were concerned with is beyond my knowledge as it would require not only watching all of the films and miniseries and assessing their motivations but also understanding how Britain (and the US) were processing their colonial pasts at that time. But clearly enough time had passed by the 80s that perhaps enough postcolonial assessment and reflection had accumulated to spur film productions that actually sought out more honest depictions of the past including honest, authentic depictions of dance. What's surprised me the most is that after the 1980s, dance depictions seemed to revert back to less authenticity. What was it about the 80s! I'm sure there is lots of academic authorship on this subject; another topic to pursue!
Shatranj Ke Khilari. To top it all off, the actual dance itself is a beautiful and authentic Kathak number. Despite the horrible acting of Gandhi's character in the series, the dances are just right.
Later on in The Far Pavilions is a lavish Indian wedding scene which is followed by a brief Rajasthani folk dance that looks to my eye very similar to Kathak at 2:58 (and some folk dance at 3:40). The presentation and quality of the first dance is noteworthy; the performer is clearly trained, and I love the appreciative reaction of her audience when she finishes.
Hollywood's First Indian Actress," who is said to have hid her Indian background and from pictures looks eerily similar to Manisha Koirala. That aside, there is a scene where two Kathak dancers perform at a party but end up being interrupted by a drunk Queenie who thinks she can join in the fun; the dancers appear to be Indian and actually perform authentic movements making for an enjoyable viewing.