I was so excited when Richard at his Dances on the Footpath blog found Shobana's Bharatanatyam numbers in Mahamayee, and thanks to the huge uptick recently in the number of Malayalam films and songs posted online I was able to find this week two Malayalam films with classical dances by Shobana that I have never seen before (and I venture to guess neither have most of my readers!). Huge thanks are due to Youtuber Iqnatusm who has uploaded a lot of rare dances from Malayalam cinema.
an interview her true debut film as a lead as April 18 (Malayalam, 1984). But Bhakta Dhruva Markandeya (Telugu, 1982), a children's mythological film starring an all child/teen cast, could be considered her first major role. I was delighted to find the film available on YouTube with English subtitles. Here is a 12-year-old Shobana as Queen Suneethi dancing a bit in a song with just-christened second wife Suruchi (at 13:48 is a brief Bharatanatyam-inspired move). The whole children/young teens acting such mature roles thing is a bit...creepy!
Shobana learnt Bharatanatyam first from K.J. Sarasa and then extensively under Chitra Visweswaran before performing her debut arangetram in Chennai in 1984 (Sruti). She later learned a bit of the Bharata Nrityam style under Padma Subrahmanyam, and in recent years she has presented creative and imaginative choreographies based in classical idioms such as her production Maya Ravana (which you can watch in full here at Shemaroo's channel).
I find the film dance finds of Shobana below exciting because even though they all ultimately have a bit of filmy-gloss to them, the early dances serve as a visual archive of Shobana's abilities in the years of and immediately following her arangetram and before she was later recorded in the 1990s. The results are mixed ranging from barely mediocre to spectacular. I've read varying opinions about Shobana's real-life Bharatanatyam dance style. Her detractors criticize her lack of the deep half-seated araimandi position and other points of form and find a lack of completion in her movements. In films she often is dancing at such a fast pace that her form/completion is sometimes sacrificed. But her beauty and most of all her clearly evident joy in dancing makes her dances a fulfilling watch.
Enakkul Oruvan (1984, Tamil) - These are probably Shobana's earliest, proper Bharatanatyam-based film dances! I had no idea she danced in this film until recently when the whole film became available online. In the comedy scene below, she is practicing Bharatanatyam with her guru played by an actor who has no idea how to play the beats on the tattukazhi. Later on at 23:05, Shobana reappears in full dance costume in a similar comedy sequence where she poses for photographs with a disguised Kamal Hassan.
Here Shobana gives a Bharatanatyam performance on stage with an admiring but soon-hallucinating Kamal Hassan looking on from the audience. I love the lines she makes with her long arms, but the number is overall uninspiring. In an interview, Shobana has said that she only 14 when she acted in this film (though she looks much older given her 5'8 height) and was understandably nervous around superstar Hassan. Actress/dancer Sripriya also performs a Bharatanatyam number in the film, but she is no Shobana! Unfortunately, the film was a dud and led Shobana to return to Malayalam cinema where she gained fame and acclaim.
Ee Thanalil Ithiri Neram (1985, Malayalam) - Another stage Bharatanatyam performance, but this time her form is quite awkward at times and she doesn't complete a lot of her movements which seem rushed. Parts of the dance are a mess! As I was taking screencaps the awkwardness became really evident—here's a few that catch even the untrained eye as looking ungainly, and then watch the dance below:
Udayam Padinjaaru (1986, Malayalam) - A graceful Mohiniattam-inspired temple dance by Shobana! While Shobana's mainstay has always been Bharatanatyam, she also learned Mohiniattam and Odissi. I'm surprised there are not more Mohiniattam numbers in her films given how prolific she was in Malayalam cinema. The way the fan is draped to the side on her hip is an interesting choice, and the music has a languid Kerala flavor. Such a beautiful dance! So happy to have found this rare gem.
No longer available online :(
Mahamayee (1991, Tamil) - This is one of those films that never shows up in Shobana's filmographies online and makes me wonder what other film dances of hers are out there undiscovered. Had the uploaders not attached Shobana's name to it I doubt it would have been found! Shobana and Sridhar play the leads two years before they danced together in Manichitrathazhu. Shobana plays an orphan who is cared for by Somayajulu (who has played similar roles in many films, perhaps most famously in Sankarabharanam) and protected by the temple cobra who doesn't like her pending marriage to Sridhar's character.
Here is Shobana's Bharatanatyam practice scene (she appears at :14) with her nattuvanar. It's a "filmy" practice scene that presents lots of easily-digestible, brief snippets of "classicalisms" for the audience, but luckily for us there are enough extended adavus to make for an interesting and colorful watch. Once again the playing of the wooden tattu kazhi doesn't match the striking sounds at all! This is almost as bad as the abundant faux-veena playing in South Indian cinema. :)
Shobana's dance on the temple premises is all sharp geometry, speed, and form and is my favorite film dance of hers. The choreography is filled with markers of Kuchipudi dance and was composed, according to the credits, by P.V. Seshu (thanks Ragothaman for the translation!). Seshu, also credited elsewhere as V. Seshu Parupalli, choreographed some of the most beloved Kuchipudi in Telugu films like that in Sankarabharanam, Saptapadi, Ananda Bhairavi, and partly for Sagara Sangamam. At 3:21 the snake appears (it has a name—Nageswari—according to the credits!) and Shobana's movements get more fiercely cobra-like. I see so much of Padmini in Shobana's abhinaya and snake dance portions. Shobana also has a tandava dance in this song.
Manichitrathazhu (1993, Malayalam) - Without a doubt Shobana's most well-known classical dance in films, this number was danced and choreographed by Shobana and male dancer Sridhar themselves. Sridhar was a talented dancer who performed a number of rare male classical dances in cinema. The editing makes the reality/dream segments flow effortlessly, and Shobana/Sridhar's lightfooted, effortless choreography is creatively extracted from Bharatanataym and matches perfectly with the music. A timeless number that can never be matched.
Dance Like a Man (2003/4, English) - I just discovered this movie can be viewed in full online for free at the NFDC's "Cinemas of India" webpage here! Finally! While Rama Vaidyanathan trained and choreographed Anoushka Shankar in the film, Shobana choreographed her own dance numbers. The music of Ganesh-Kumaresh finds a perfect echo in her practice dance on the veranda which has that raw sense of abandon that makes practice dances my favorite. Fun tip: the male nattuvanar seen at 2:24 is the late U.S. Krishna Rao!
I am still in awe of Shobana's choreography here as she frolics through aesthetically-pleasing extensions and sharp pauses. Given Arif Zakaria's terrible dance skills in the video above, it's probably a blessing that he only had to stand completely still as a meditating sage in this dance!
Last, here is a fairly recent commercial (for paint!) starring Shobana as a classical dance teacher.
To close, here are some lovely screencaps from Shobana's classical film dances: