Indian Dances in Western Films about India: Part 3 (Orientalism)

Saturday, December 3, 2011
There could be no better way to kick off Part 3 of this post series than this hilarious poster from the film/documentary India Speaks (1933) directed by Richard Halliburton.  Click here to view the image in all its full-sized glory (and try to pick your favorite tagline!):
Film poster (source: Wikipedia)
It does put a damper on the fun to realize that the film, seemingly reissued later under different names (Bride of the East, Bride of Buddha, Captive Bridge of Shangri-La), was apparently a violent exploitation film that was withdrawn from release in India due to obvious objections.  Awww, you mean it's not a serious historical film gone horribly awry in its pursuit of depicting a "bizarre India"? ;)  Even so, it serves as a perfect (albeit extreme) introduction to the underlying attitudes permeating through many older historical empire films about India.  I will lightly touch on these attitudes throughout this post but won't go into much depth because this post would turn into a novel!  This post is split into four sections: The Incomparable Indian Tomb Films, Deliciously Orientalist, The Exotic "Bellydance" Stereotype, and Brief and Fleeting.

- The Incomparable Indian Tomb films! -

I couldn't ask for a better start to this collection than the wacky dances found throughout the various Indian Tomb films!  In Part 2, I briefly noted that the 1918 German book The Indian Tomb has had many German film incarnations.  Since it's so difficult to keep track of them all, here's a brief rundown:
  • 1918 - Book Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) written by Thea von Harbou published
  • 1921 - 3.5 hour silent film Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) released directed by Joe May with screenplay by Fritz Lang and his now wife Harbou; split into two parts (Die Sendung des Yoghi (The Mission of the Yogi) and Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Bengal)).  Apparently there was a rift between May and Lang regarding this film; Lang was apparently supposed to direct it originally but was seen as inexperienced so May took the reins much to Lang's disappointment.
  • 1938 - Black and white films Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) directed by Richard Eichberg released; a version with French actors was called Le Tombeau Hindou and Le Tigre du Bengale.
  • 1959 - Fritz Lang's Indian Epic directed by Fritz Lang released; split into two parts Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb); Lang finally got the chance to direct the film he wanted to make!
  • 1960 - Journey to the Lost City - The above film condensed into 90 minutes and released in the US.

Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1938, Germany) - With the enormous statue of a Hindu goddess (though what's with the extra set of arms in front, or are they legs?) and the faux fire torches, this dance number is certainly visually striking.  Lest you be only mesmerized by the decor, the film soon distracts you with the "exoticised" dancer Indira and her very sparkly costume that wraps tentacle-like around her body with a minimum of material; the bottom half is some sort of gold undies-fan combination and the tips of her fingers are fitted with metallic cones. And the shoulder accents?  The headpiece? It's all so ugly!  For most of the song she just writhes and twirls around with some snake arms and graceful hand circle accents that look nothing like dance from India; at 1:49 she really goes to town but is hindered by her unflexible back and painful expression.  The dancer, known by the stage name La Jana, was a well-known Austrian-German actress and dancer who became very popular in German films and, from various online references, had quite a following of men (apparently Hitler was among them!).

Video no longer available

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic (1959, West Germany) - And now we come to "Fritz Lang's Indian Epic" which is quite epic indeed both in its visuals and its portrayal of an "exotic" India! American actress Debra Paget plays an Indian-Irish "temple dancer" who gets involved in a love triangle between a German architect and the Indian maharaja.  Her dance style in the film is... how shall we describe it?  It's kinda based on modern European dance and quite similar to the lovingly-named "Cheesecake" film dances featured on pwgr2000's YouTube channel; the dances are only in the lightest of ways (hand gestures, half-seated posture) remotely inspired by Indian dance. What's most fascinating to me is how much the dance style has in common with the 1938 version above.  It's almost like Lang decided to one-up Eichberg's film and remake the iconic dance in an epic, larger-than-life fashion with similar but improved choreography.  Despite the kitschiness, Paget is such a talented dancer that I can't stop watching her.  She has excellent skill and one can only imagine what she could have done with some proper Indian dance!

One of the most interesting anecdotes I read about Lang's film was that it became "something of a cultural icon in the German-speaking world over time, comparable to films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) in America that wove their thread into the fabric of national culture mainly through holiday television screenings" (Rouge).  Really?!

Der Tiger Von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur, Indian Epic Part 1)

Practice scene - Yay, the first "practice dance" scene of the series!  It serves as a perfect introduction to the dance style seen in the film.  The half-seated wide-legged stance, the hand and arm angles, the head roll... it's sort of a fanciful interpretation of the grounded, angular movements of South and Southeast Asian dance combined with a bit of the airy antigravity of European ballet and a touch of inspiration from ancient Egyptian paintings.  The music doesn't match the Indian instruments at all, but at least they appear to be authentic Indian instruments!

(embedding disabled - click on image to link to video)

Big Boobie Statue Temple Dance #1 - Like the 1938 version, this film's temple dances are done in front of an enormous statue...except this time all you can focus on are the statue's big boobs!  Here, Paget dances the fuller version of her practice dance above and embellishes it with lots of gorgeous ballet twirls.  She keeps me watching through to the end (well, except for the boring "erotic" writhing on the statue's palm) because she has such presence!  Other than the bells on her feet (placed in a straight line from ankle to toes instead of wrapped around like ghungroos) and her bindi, there's really nothing Indian about her hideous costume.  My favorite part of the dance? The look exchanged between the men at 1:57. ;D

Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, Indian Epic Part 2)

Big Boobie Statue Temple Dance #2 - For the second temple dance in the film, the scantily-clad factor is upped off the charts!  Paget's costume is basically only strategically placed small sheets of sequined jewels.  But the signature addition in this dance is the animatronic snake whose face looks just as turned on as the men in the room. ;)  Since Paget is practically naked, her dance is pretty much all graceful undulations to show off her nekkidness in front of the, erm, phallic snake...

- Deliciously Orientalist -

Alright, the kitsch and glitz are over!  Onto the next group of dances which are, compared to the wonders above, relatively normal in setting and tone despite having a clear orientalist bias.  Since a common orientalist stereotype views women in "the orient" as powerless and existing purely for the pleasure of men, these dances are filmed in the perspective of the male viewers and there is always at least one lingering shot of the men gazing satisfied at what's being presented before them.  The women are presented as an "exotic other."  The most "delicious" oriental depiction is in the pre-dance dialogue of "The Drum," while the other film dances are a bit more subtle.

The Drum (1938, UK) - The Orientalist view of the female dancer is made clear near the end of the dance (around 1:16:02) when the British captain and the Indian king have a most-hilarious discussion clearly designed to paint the Indians as misogynistic and backwards. Like many similar films of the 30s, The Drum seems to be pro-British propaganda with an imperialist view of an uncivilised people; it's release in India caused widespread protests that caused it to be withdrawn (for more fascinating information about this see the chapter "The Drum (1938): The Myth of the Muslim Menace" from Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema on Google Books). Once the dancer finally appears, she mostly just waves her hands and arms around gracefully to vaguely "oriental" sounding music; her costume is the only thing that resembles anything authentically Indian. The credits identify the dancer as Miriam Pieris who was also known as Miriam de Saram and was apparently the "first Ceylonese woman to study, master, and perform publicly, both Kandyan and South Indian dancing." It's a shame she wasn't given better choreography!

Starts 1:14:31

King of the Khyber Rifles (1953, USA) - This dancer is so enthusiastic with her hyperactive chest-shimmies and headbobs; her costume is clearly inspired from the folk traditions of northwest India, and she appears to try "Indian-ish" things with her hands but I'm not clear what she's going for.  Some classic, gratuitous "male gaze" shots with a full up-and-down track of the eye.  

The Long Duel (1967, UK) - Dance #1 - English actress Imogen Hassall (see edit below) plays Tara in the film and has two fairly short dance scenes.  Here, she basically does little twirly-twirls over and over while the Indian dancers behind her are given clearly more interesting choreography.  The way Imogen holds her thumb in forefinger together is an imitation of hand gestures.  Standard male gaze shot at 2:09.  Edit: According to Dror Izhar in his book "Quit India...", the Indian dancer Champa is played by Virginia North.  Hassall and North look very similar, but I'm going to guess it's Virginia North.

Dance #2 - Imogen's (North's?) brief use of the Katakamukha hand gesture from Bharatanatyam in the beginning of this dance was a nice find.  None of the other non-authentic dances from this series have mined the vast catalog of hand gesture in Indian classical dances which I find fascinating; it's such an easy way to "spice up" a dance and "exoticize" it yet it's hardly used.  The rest of her dance is blah with a terrible head-bobble attempt at :41. I would much rather watch the Indian dancers that can be seen in the background starting at 1:17- their choreography is infinitely more interesting than hers is!

Black Narcissus (1947, UK) - First and foremost I must mention how sumptuous the Technicolor visuals and cinematography in this film are; they are muted yet rich, atmospheric and otherworldly, and absolutely beautiful. Beyond just soaking in the film's visuals, I noticed there is a small dance by a very native (i.e., faux-tanned) Jean Simmons where she prances about alone in a room. Note the classic "overhead namaste" and headslides and the unusual ("exotic") jewelry. It's very short, and very sensual. The whole film, in fact, is sensual!

Starts 40:47

- The Exotic "Bellydance" Stereotype -

More than once have I described my love for classical and other dances from India to acquaintances and gotten a response like "oh, I love those little finger cymbals they use!" or "me too! I have a friend who does bellydance!" When I began the research journey for this post series, I fully expected to see lots of "bellydance" routines with women in harem pants and jeweled bra-tops try to passing for native Indian dancers.  I've been very surprised that the vast majority didn't have this mixup and actually attempted, however meager, to show dance from India.  One caveat: I've not yet delved into the complex history of what Westerners perceive as "bellydance," but I was surprised to learn recently that the general dance form is thought by some to have originated in pre-Vedic India.  Certainly since that time the dance has evolved and become associated with or practiced in West Asia as we define it today, and today "bellydance" related dance forms are not associated with India/South Asia as it is defined today.  And really, the "bellydance" stereotype I'm referring to is the orientalist vision of the harem-costumed bellydancer that seems to have arisen in the west from such inspirations as the Ballet Russes "oriental" ballet tours, fairs/ exhibitions featuring exotic bellydancers, and popular films such as The Sheik (1921). 

Zarak (1956, UK) - A complete b-grade jubilee, Zarak is set on the northwest British India/Afghanistan border in the mid 1800s and features a pseudobellydance routine that is as kitschy and cheesecakey as can be.  The dance is introduced by some jubilant white chicks who dance around under such amazing props as a floating sheet and do a little "namaste" hand gesture before whisking themselves offscreen to give the stage to the sexy Anita Ekberg in brownface.  Ekberg mostly sways her hips and arms and writhes around some makeshift poles (oriental stripper poles, awesome!) and men. Poor eye-patch man just wants his friend to acknowledge the hotness in front of him! If you really want some entertainment, watch the song before the dance in which a brownface white chick sings about a "Persian Hug." 

Starts 7:22

King of the Khyber Rifles (1953, USA)  - While the dancer in this brief scene wears a small "hip fan" on her costume that is inspired by dance costumes in India, her undulating movements are pure "oriental dance" stereotype.

- Brief and Fleeting -

These dances are disappointing because they are so short!  All that work to set up the dance scenes with such little resulting footage!

Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935, USA) - The black and white camerawork and set design in this film is gorgeous.  Here, the Bengal Lancers (the real-life British cavalry unit stationed on the Northwest Frontier) are welcomed by the king at his court but are quite distracted by the jingling sounds of the entering dancers' bells and jewelry (such a great touch!).  "Like the Arabian Nights, isnt it?" one of the Lancers comments.  The camera doesn't linger very long on the dancers who only move their arms around while seated on the ground.  At 9:54 we finally get to briefly see the dancers performing while standing; aren't their skirts beautiful?  The set up could have made for a beautiful, full-length dance number had the director had his priorities straight! ;) Of course, the native dancers can't hold the men's attention once the white chick enters the scene (and if you keep watching, their antics to win her attention are quite funny). 

Video no longer available

Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, USA) - Clearly shot with care in making artistic contrasts and shadows with the black and white medium, this film takes the easy way out by filming the dance scene with only brief shadows of the dancers moving in the background! We see the dancers briefly rush into the room at the beginning of the scene but they are only seen in shadow afterwards. All that trouble and we don't even get to see them!  

Video no longer available online

The Rains Came (1939, USA) - While I'm completely distracted by the brilliant pokerface of the elderly bejeweled Indian woman (who is actually Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya but is convincingly Indian!), this scene does has a folk dancer in the background that mostly just spins and waves her hands around.  The film also presents a "classical" Indian music in a performance in Part 4 later in the film, though the music we hear is as far from Hindustani music as can be!

Video no longer available online

Sharpe's Peril (2008, UK) - I know this dance isn't taking place in some royal court or anything, but couldn't they come up with better choreography then holding the edges of the skirt and awkwardly spinning and bouncing around like five year old girls playing at recess?  I suppose the Sharpe series can be forgiven because in Sharpe's Challenge there is a short Kathak performance that is nicely composed; it technically fits in Part 1 but I will just list it here in tandem with its counterpart in the video below.

Video no longer available online

Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1938, Germany) - The Menaka Indian Ballet dances featured in Part 2 aren't the only dances in this film; a bejeweled to the max La Jana (who did the fabulous dance at the top of this post) does some slow, 'exotic' movements after being inspired by Indian musicians outside her window.  She is soon interrupted, but if you continue watching, you can see her unappealing costume- instead of a choli, the costume designers decided to awkwardly wrap a small strip of fabric around her chest. Beyond the dances, I find watching the plethora of generalized "eastern exotic" costumes and jewelry in this film fascinating! 

Thus concludes Part 3! As I mentioned in Part 2, I will be adding a Part 4 to discuss coproductions about India and the advantages of insider knowledge that dances from those films received. [Update: Part 4, and Part 1.]


  1. Dear MinaiMinai,

    I came across your blog when I was looking for some orientalist work on Bharatnatyam and devadasi traditions. Your blog is fascinating! Keep up the good work.

  2. anon - Thank you very much! I'm happy that folks searching for topics like that are able to find my blog. :) If you haven't seen it already, you would probably enjoy my post on Jack Cole and "Hindu Swing."

  3. Your blog is a wonderful treasure trove for various dance related topics. Who would have thought that classical art forms can influence oriental perceptions about India. Wonderful job, Minai! Keep up the good work!


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