Series Kick-Off: Remembering Film Choreographers

Sunday, June 24, 2012
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a project to identify the choreographers and masterminds behind all of the classical-oriented film dances I’ve featured on my blog to date.  It had dawned on me that I’ve never given enough credit, or even thought, to the choreographers behind all of these wonderful dances.

Umrao Jaan and Chori Chori
The result of my research has been absolutely fascinating.  A relatively small group of people was responsible for most of the classical film dances I’ve featured on this blog, which as a whole forms a collection that I think represents most of the best classically-oriented dances in Indian films (though there are still some I haven’t yet covered, especially of Kathak).  Not only was a small group responsible, but also that group was comprised largely of surprisingly eminent and respected traditional practitioners of classical dances: traditional Bharatanatyam nattuvannars from hereditary families (and some the products of the institution Kalakshetra) for Tamil and Telugu films, Kuchipudi gurus/nattuvannars for Telugu films, renowned Kathak dancers and gurus for Hindi films, and Kerala Kalamandalam trained artists for Malayalam films.  Essentially many of the kind of people that you wouldn’t expect to associate with the glamorous cinema world.  Expanding beyond this small group, one also  finds classic and modern film choreographers who created some beautiful work and, of course, classical dancers themselves who designed their own dances to stunning effect.

Therefore, this post serves as the series kick-off or introduction! In the series, I plan to not only show examples of the many film dances but also examine the surprising involvement of the traditional community and pull together some engaging research I’ve found.  Here’s a rough outline of what I envision the series will look like, with some teasers:
  • Bharatanatyam Nattuvannars – Even the great stalwart Meenakshisundaram Pillai had a stint in films! And guess who Sayee-Subbulakshmi’s guru was...
  • Kuchipudi Gurus/Nattuvannars – All the golden 70s-90s Kuchipudi film dance hits can be attributed to just two people...
  • Kathak Gurus – Some of the film-style Kathak dances closest to authentic Kathak were created by, you guessed it, big-name, authentic Kathak gurus... 
  • Kathakali/Kerala Dance Gurus – It’s all about the Kerala Kalamandalam...
  • Dancers – Roshan Kumari, Shobana, Sridhar…
  • Choreographers – Some of Hindi cinema’s most well known, artistic dances can be attributed to another small group of people!  Heeralal earns my eternal devotion...

The Goal: Bringing Awareness to Regional Film Dances

But I’m hoping for more than just reporting on the results of a painstakingly-researched pet project or offering a way to locate similar choreographies from a known enjoyable dance.  I’m hoping to contribute to information/research on dance in Indian films that moves past the narrow-focus of Hindi films and expands to cover India’s most prolific “regional” film industries outside of Mumbai.  Because, let’s face it, if you want to see some good classical-inspired dancing in Indian films, you need to head down south, by and large. 

The general lack of awareness of the rich, classically-oriented dances in South Indian cinema is frustrating.  It’s acknowledged by scholars in the field that there is an “absence of any comprehensive documentation on the subject” as Arundhathi Subramaniam says in her essay “Dance in Films” (“New Directions in Indian Dance,” Sunil Kothari).  What’s deliciously ironic about her statement is that she is referring to “dance in Hindi cinema” only, which actually has in the past decade or so started to receive some scholarly attention (Sangitha Shresthova, Ajay Gehlawat, and many others).  Expand beyond “Bollywood” though and the lack of information is appalling!

Subramaniam's Hindi film emphasis is explained by her historical description that when “cinema acquired a ‘voice’,” “Hindi cinema…stepped in to play the vital role of pan-Indian cinema – a functioned conferred upon it by an increasingly patriotic zeitgeist that sought to construct a homogenous unifying national identity.”  She then notes how common “creative loans from folk and classical dance idioms” were and that choreographers like Gopi Krishna and Uday Shankar and dancers like Vyjayanthimala and Padmini influenced “the approach to dance in film in the ‘50s.”  But as this post series will show, when one moves to the southern regional industries the folk and classical dance influences are much stronger and offer rich opportunities in historical, political, and sociological analysis due to who the choreographers and dancers were and the cultural mileu they lived in.  I find it completely fascinating, and I don’t know why more folks don’t take up this topic for academic research!

One of the few mainstream articles I’ve found on classical Indian film dance, “Classical Dance Fades from Big Screen” by Malini Nair, clearly illustrates what results from the lack of information and recognition of regional film dances.  Nair says, “even masters like CV Chandrasekhar today point to Aplam Chaplam as one of the most crackling onscreen displays of Bharatanatyam…The Sai sisters went on to do one more dance in Hindi films (Man Bhavan Ke Ghar; Chori Chori) before disappearing.”  First of all, Azaad’s "Aplam Chaplam" dance was remade from Mallaikalan, and the original’s “Neeli Megan" dance had a much more authentic Bharatanatyam-based dance than its spiced-up Hindi remake.  But since the article restricts itself to Hindi films, what about Vyjayanthimala’s awesome authentic Bharatanatyam Alarippu in New Delhi, and Kamala's brilliant dance in Chori Chori?

But the most egregious error in the article is regarding “the Sai” or Sayee-Subbulakshmi (aka Sai-Subbulaxmi) sisters.  They had other, folksier numbers in a handful of Hindi films, not just “one more dance.”  And they most certainly did not disappear!  As Richard at the Dances on the Footpath Blog and I have discovered, their best classical work was found in their many Tamil dances.  By restricting the topic to Hindi films, all of these dances remain forgotten and the practitioners are written off as having vanished!  Shame, really.

The misconception appears to continue in Indian film dance scholar V.A.K. Ranga Rao's article on Vyjayanthimala in Sruti magazine (Issue 314).  “Apart from Hiralal and brother Sohanlal, there were very few south Indian dance directors.  Muthuswami Pillai did a brief alrippu-tillana number in New Delhi (1956), and Dandayudhapani Pillai Oonchi Oonchi Dukan in Pehli Jhalak.”  I suppose that is fairly accurate if the article is referring only to Hindi films, but it goes on to mention some of Vyjayanthimala’s Tamil classical numbers!  What about their choreographers? 

And beyond these specific examples, a recurring theme on my blog has been remembering the classical dances of Kumari Kamala/Kamala Lakshman/Kamala Lakshminarayanan who has largely been forgotten in popular film dance history despite her vast body of work featuring a small number of Hindi film dances (such as Kismet, Meera, and Ram Rajya as Baby Kamala and Chori Chori, Yahudi, Jwala etc as Kumari Kamala). 

Thus forms the series kick-off!  I may post other things along the way, but over the next few weeks (months? :)) I should be cranking out the posts.  Any and all feedback welcomed!


  1. Wonderful idea! (and indeed very needed) I really appreciate your hard work and waiting for the next parts:)

  2. I too look forwad to the articles. But 'authentic bharatanatyam based dance' reminded me of Vikram Chandra's article
    I think filmmakers and dancers in films were mainly trying to entertain the majority of people without specialized background (earlier devadasi dances had popular following I think but I am not so sure of bharatanayyam developed during the early twentieth century). Padmini in the interview
    seems to say (I do not follow Tamil except for a few words) that ordinary people in India do not have facilities of clubs and so on and the aim was to entertain such people. Somewhere else, she says it is a filmi dance. L.Vijayalakshmi in an interview, at one place blurts out, 'it is classical but graceful'. In the early days film songs were banned from All India Radio but changed the policy later on. But these are random thoughts. I enjoy your posts and look forward to more.

  3. Wow, what an admirable effort and great project. I'm not sure if I'm totally out of bounds suggesting this but you could, given the time & effort you're putting into this, look into writing a book of some sort. It seems like a topic ripe for long-form writing and you're obviously able to do the research required. You might be able to find an interested publisher in India (not sure if non-Indian audiences are that interested..)

    Just throwing this out there, feel free to ignore etc. :) Lookig forward to the posts!

  4. Mariola - Thanks for the encouragement. We'll see how quickly me and my perfectionism can get the posts finished. :)

    gaddeswarup - Interesting (though very long!) article you linked, and I like the points you have raised in your "random thoughts." They are points about topics much bigger than I can discuss here (or even in a single post), but I will likely touch upon the "authenticity" issue a bit in the Bharatanatyam part of the series. I hope to hear your thoughts! But most of all, THANK YOU for posting that Padmini interview from 2004! I've not seen anything like that before and didn't know she had been interviewed so recently before her death. I'll see if I can persuade a Tamil speaker to do a translation - I'm very interested to hear what she says. What a great video find...

    veracious - Thank you. There are many possibilities regarding the topics on this blog and alternative avenues of writing and publishing. We'll see what the future holds! :)

  5. A bit more ramling. Vikram Chandra(who comes from filmi background) titled some of his stories artha, kama, dharma etc in "Love and Longing in Bombay". There was criticism by some that Indian writing in English is not authentic, particularly by those who live abroad part of the time, and that they are using these words to fake authenticity. And that authentic writing is from regional writers living near home etc.. The problem with the criticism is there are hundreds of Indias, some multi ethnic and multi linguistic. He says about his background:
    "Yes, I must respectfully submit that I too am a "regional writer." I will not presume to claim Maharashtra or even the entire city of Bombay as my region. I will only claim part of the western suburbs, let us say north from the highway junction at Mahim causeway, roughly an area containing Dharavi, Bandra West, Khar, Santa Cruz, Juhu, Andheri West, and Goregaon West. This is my region. I live in it, in the locality of Andheri, in the colony called Lokhandwalla.
    Now, in this, my region, it is very very common for a person to speak one language at home, use another on the street, do business in a third, and make love in a fourth."

    My impression is that in music and dance too, there are lots of variations sometimes within the same area depending on the community. Perhaps some text communities have been able to record their preferences more than others. But films had to appeal to most people, for financial reasons, and the way they adopted various arts forns and the evolution of these in cinema is interesting but I really do not know much about. But the film makers and artists seem to be aware of these limitations as the interview with Padmini indicates. Just as in music, lot of improvisations took place in dance too I think. For some reason, those days (upto fifties), many of the professionals othr than the film stars and perhaps producers and directors were not properly credited. Sometimes the name of the character in the film would appear on a 78 RPM instead of the singer's name. There were cases of lyricists writing for each other. If a film is made in different languages, many of the tunes may be the same but names of the music directors would be different. I think choreographers fared the worst. So I think yours is a worthy effort but it may be difficult to get informations except from people of those generations or those who spoke to the older people.

  6. Gaddeswarup,

    This is an interesting conversation, I think (from what I see,) Minai is trying more to document all these,based on her interest in filmed dances, rather than put herself in a position of arbitrating their authenticity.

    But that said, it is possible to draw a line connecting present day classical art, 1940's classical art and present day popular art and see if we can draw the line through the personalities in question.

    to give you an example, take street theater (therukkuthu in tamil, yakshagana in telegu) By just following the exponents of therukkuthu in films you can find a connection between how it was played in 1940's films and then through the song and dance of the 60's and to the "Mass Koothu " of the current day if one looked at choreographers in tamil cinema and their legacy (say , raghu master and his sons prabhu deva and raju sundaram).

    Its interesting historical exercises like this that keeps me hooked to this blog.

  7. Ramesham,
    Thanks. Isaw very few films after fifties and am looking forward to minai's writings. As you say, there are probably continuous threads and I hope to learn more. Thanks again.

  8. What a brilliant project! I'm looking forward to see this unfurl. And I second Veracious' gentle prompt towards publication. I'm sure you'd find a heap of keen alpha and beta readers ready to help :) Cheers, Temple

  9. gaddeswarup - You are right that it can be very difficult to source choreographers for films, especially in older films. I've also read examples of DVD manufacturers accidentally splicing in portions of credits from other films! For the series, I've tried to stick to the most authentic sources I can find - the NFAI, film credits, credible interviews, etc... but there is certainly always the possibility of something being wrong! Tis the lament of the Indian film dance historian! :)

    rameshram - The therukutthu to mass kuthu evolution you've referenced sounds like a fascinating area of study! there's just too many fascinating topics in the subject of film dance I tell ya! I'm overwhelmed! :)

    Temple - Hello! I had to google what "alpha and beta readers" was, hehe :) I like the idea of having lots of eyes peruse a work! Happy to hear you're looking forward to the series. I should have the first post out next week... I came across a bunch of thrilling research this week and got a lil distracted! :)

  10. Hi

    You can add me to the group - i am really interested in knowing more. Thanks for all your hard work and generosity in sharing it with the rest of us.

    After reading your blog posts on south indian films with dancing as the background theme, I managed to get copies of swaranakamalam and ananda bhairavi. I have seen Ananda Bhairavi - it was a poor quality VCD (incidentally without subtitles were you able to follow the movie?). I found something lacking in Ananda Bairavi. I guess a series of movies were made on themes like this after the stupendous success of Shankara Barnam (Manju Bhargavi and Sommayajulu as the dance guru). SB was a real good movie. Perhaps i should spend some time in writing down my thoughts on what i found lacking in Ananda Bairavi some time.

    I haven't seen swarnakamalam yet. Thanks for bringing these movies to our attention.

    1. Filmbuff - Hello! How nice to see so many people interested in the choreography series...I'm feeling the pressure now! ;) The first series posts are still not yet finished as I've come across a massive amount of academic research that I'm wading through. But they are coming soon! :)

      I too found something definitely lacking in Ananda Bhairavi. In my post on it, I explained it was due to the film being "rough around the edges" meaning the cinematography and editing quality was subpar, and there were so many scenes of characters simply talking with one another. I found myself having a lack of sympathy for the characters in the second half. Perhaps the film would be more meaningful to someone who grew up in a similar dance/caste culture in Andhra and understands all the nuances, but I felt it just didn't have the magic other dance films have.

      I highly recommend you watch Swarnakamalam! The first half or so is my favorite. Bhanupriya is simply radiant and such an excellent, engaging dancer. I didn't really like the second half- Cinema Chaat has a great writeup about the problems with the film. But after the not-so-great experience of Ananda Bhairavi, I would definitely suggest you watch Swarnakamalam!

    2. Thanks - one of these days i hope to see swarnakamalam. So many movies to see so little time!

      Yes T&H at Cinema Chaat have good reviews. They were instrumental in my watching Chiranjeevi's Subha Lekha.

      Have you seen Shankarabarnam? Have you done a post on it?


  11. I would really recommend that you see Shankarabarnam ie the entire movie. It was a really good movie set in pre indepdence period. Both Somayajulu and Manju Bhargavi did ver well.

  12. Shankarabharanam is not set in pre independance days, its set in a contemporary period.(probably late 0's/ 70's. The rock music in shankarabharanam is late 70's music, which would make rajalakshmi's charecter's birthday the mid 60's.

    It's just that much of rural india has been in a medieval timewarp that never left the 1900's...or 1200's....

  13. Filmbuff - Shankarabaranam is one of the dance movies I've not seen all the way through and have only watched the songs. I need to find a good copy with subtitles to watch! Thanks for the nudge. One of my favorite reviews/analysis of the film is this one over at the Visions of Cinema blog- thought you might enjoy reading it if you've not seen it already.

    rameshram - Thanks for the correction. It can often be hard for non-Indians to judge the time period of rural-based films because they appear so timeless!

    1. I think I should have clarified when i said preindepdence India i meant in a social context not in the historical time period context - the theme of a dancer from a diff community being accepted by a higher caste dance teacher - these kind of taboos were more prevalent those days. The movie did have a contemporary setting in terms of the dance teacher's daugther - that was to draw the younger audience in and make room for a romantic angle. The main story was focused on the dancer Manju Bhargavi and the Dance teacher somayajulu.

      Minai, i hope you get a good quality DVD with subs which i know is a big ask. It is worth watching in its entirety -


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