Two More Busby Berkeley-Inspired Top Shots in 1930s Indian Film Dances

Friday, October 18, 2013
In my post last year about Dance in Early Indian Cinema, I had marveled at the technical advancements in Indian film dances from the 1930s like that in Raitu Bidda (1939), Chandrasena (1935), and Amrit Manthan (1934)—the last of which featured overhead camera "top shots" inspired by the famous Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley that frame the dancers in novel geometric patterns.

Recently I happened onto two more examples of the top shot technique in 1930s Indian film dance: Rajput Ramani (Hindi, 1936) and Rambayin Kaathal (Tamil, 1939)! This suggests the technique must have been fairly popular in Indian cinema at that time, and it's easy to see why it was so. Moving the camera away from the static, theatrical frontal position must have been awe inspiring in those days (and it still is today!)

Rajput Ramani (Hindi, 1936) - "Ayi Sakhi Kya Bahar" - Starting at :30, the number begins with an overhead shot of the hands of a circle of dancing women. The camera slowly rises, and then we see a level shot inside same dancing circle that gives the viewer a frame of reference. The number advances at 1:05 when the women individually spin inward and outward, and at 2:10 the extensions of the women's clothing as they spin create pinwheels! Like Amrit Manthan, Rajput Ramani was directed by V. Shantaram and produced by Prabhat Films, a renowned studio in its day known for its talented art department. Aren't the cuts to the audience watching the dance performance interesting. Their view is quite boring, but our view, thanks to the possibilities the camera creates, is mesmerizing!

Rambayin Kaathal (Tamil, 1939—not 1956!) - According to Randor Guy, this successful film centered around the heavenly dancer Ramba and her trials. I adore this courtly group dance number featuring six young women! The emphasis on the sounds of the ghungroo bells, the jewelry and arm ornaments, the choreography—everything about the number looks very old and quite different from the film dances seen in the late 1940s and onwards. My favorite part begins at 1:17 where we see a routine group dance number performed on top of a design on the court floor. At 1:46, the girls start to move in a more complex pattern and then at 1:50—bam! The Busby Berkeley-inspired top-shot appears and suddenly the dance is transformed into beautiful circle and weaving patterns as the dancers move on top of the same floor design pattern. Once again, a dance technique possible only on film!

Also, I found a few more very vintage-looking 1930s film dances (but with no top shots)—from Rambayin Kaathal "Ithanai Naalaai" and the solo court dance "Jeya Ranjitha," and another solo court dance in Singahad (1933) [video no longer available].

To close, here are two video compilations of some great Busby Berkeley film choreography! Unfortunately embedding doesn't work: video one, video two. Happy viewing!


  1. I have heard people saying for a long time that "Bollywood" was influenced by Busby Berkeley, and it's true sometimes, though, of course, he was only one of many influences on Indian cinema. My favorite Busby Berkeley song/dance is "We're In The Money" from Gold Diggers of 1933, which I'm linking to below. (It doesn't really emphasize the overhead shots that you're talking about, but it is classic Busby Berkeley. And by the way, if you want to see a great example of Indians influencing Busby Berkeley, check out the segment that begins at 0:47!) It's really too bad that Hollywood eventually took a turn away from song-and-dance films; it was a very wrong turn as far as I'm concerned.

    1. Ah, I had forgotten about that bit at :47! Definite Indian influence. It's funny, I first heard of Busby Berkeley when researching for my Jack Cole post about "Hindu swing". Loney is his book "Unsung Genius" said that Cole hated Busby's hollywood dances and referred to them as "using people like wallpaper"! Of course I had to research more about Busby at that point, and then I realized he was the one responsible for all those classic grand Hollywood dance numbers with lines of beautiful women, precise coordination, and gigantic moving sets. There's an excellent documentary about Busby's work on YouTube, "Going Through the Roof." I agree about mourning Hollywood's moving away from musical-style films, and I think their popular remembrance as a "kitschy" form of the past that is often paid homage to today muddles people's ability to understand song and dance numbers as they function in Indian cinema.

  2. I admire your painstaking research.

    I liked your narrative and the video-clips of Ayi Sakhi Kya Bahar and Rambayin Kaathal. Video one appended at the end of your post did not open but I viewed Video two. The formations are superb!

    1. Aren't Busby's formations mindboggling! Here's the URL of the first video (video one) you were having trouble with: Both videos are must watches, but the first is even more spectacular. :)

    2. Yes, really mind-boggling! Thank you.

  3. Have you seen the formation in 'Dance of a Thousand Hands' available in Youtube?

    1. Yes, that's a great one, and it's interesting to try to trace its origins. :)

  4. Replies
    1. Unfortunately it is true! I plan to have a post out in the next week and I know it's one you'll enjoy--it's all about Odissi dance. :)

  5. Dear Cassidy,

    I don't think the website you have cited has given correct information about Rajput Ramani. Although produced by Prabhat Studios, it has been directed by Keshavrao Dhaiber according to Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (p.269).

    The rest, brilliant as usual!!



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