Odissi Dance in Indian Cinema Outside Odisha

Saturday, December 7, 2013
Continuing on from last week's post about Odissi dance in Odia films, here I want to highlight the usage of Odissi in films outside of Odisha. Like other classical dance forms beyond the ubiquitous Kathak and Bharatanatyam, Odissi is rarely seen in non-Odian films. When it does appear in a significant way, it is usually tied to the setting of the film or a character having Odishan heritage. Below are five Indian films that featured Odissi in a significant way starting with my absolute favorite, Hamari Beti.

Hamari Beti (2006, Hindi) - I am thrilled to have discovered this film! In the same spirit as the films Mayuri/Nache Mayuri, Hamari Beti starred Sakti Swarupa Bir (aka Shakti Swaroop) and portrayed her real-life story as a girl in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, who was deaf and speech impaired but triumphantly rose above her challenges and became an Odissi dancer. National Award-winning Odia film director/cinematographer A.K. Bir directed, scripted, and photographed the film, and Telugu film producer D. Rama Naidu produced it. While the film seems to have only been screened at some film festivals and had a very limited commercial release, luckily for us the production company Suresh Productions has posted the entire film on their YouTube channel! Distributed throughout the film is nearly 15-minutes of Odissi dance, and to my delight nearly all of them are practice dances (my favorite!) done in cotton practice saris. The careful attention to the cinematography and sound design makes the dances a gorgeous watch.

Chittaranjan Acharya (aka Prachee Chitta Ranjan Acharya or C.R. Acharyya), Sakti's real life Odissi guru and inspiration, plays himself in the film and is credited for the film's choreography. Chittaranjan is "an engineer by profession and an Odissi dance exponent by passion" who learned Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das. He still performs Odissi today with his daughter Asmita Mahapatra or his troupe. Here he is in the film demonstrating Odissi for his students—a rare male Odissi film dance!

Start 31:43

In real life, Sakti had developed her speech and hearing disabilities when she was an infant. After seeing a seven-year-old Sakti imitate dancers she saw on the television at home, her father connected her with his work colleague Chittaranjan who found she was a "promising dancer" and agreed to take her as his student. Sakti learned the form by imitating the dance of Chittaranjan's daughter Asmita who was also learning Odissi from him, and when Sakti later performed on stage Chittaranjan would "play" the rhythm with his hands next to the stage. In the film, Asmita's role is played by Odissi dancer Dr. Prachi Mehta who has an expressive and cheerful face.

Here is a playlist of all the lovely practice scenes in the film that depict Sakti's learning of Odissi through observation only beginning with warm-up exercises and then Odissi dance movements. Halfway through video number 3 in the playlist is the adorable song "Ta Ta Ta, Li Li Li" with playful vocals by Shreya Ghoshal. The last video, number 7, is a performance of Sakti by the ocean in full Odissi costume. I found the film as a whole melodramatic and wanting of more development, but the dance sequences are lovingly portrayed and among my favorites! Fair warning that there may be a lot of advertisements even in playlist mode, unfortunately. Any troubles with the playlist? Try watching it on YouTube here. Update: YouTube removed the feature to choose specific timestamps for playlists, unfortunately, so the videos do not start at the specific practice scene, you'll need to navigate on your own.

Yugant (1995, Bengali) - A relationship drama, this sensitive film has a number of short, award-winning dances directed by Ileana Citaristi, an Italian woman who moved to India in the 70s and learned Odissi under the legendary guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (and she also recently made headlines with an unfortunate Rath Yatra incident). While many of the dances in the film are modern Odissi-Chhau inspirations, Rupa Ganguly performs two nice Odissi dance practice scenes as part of her character's career as an Odissi dancer, and in the first her male dance teacher performs as well (another rare male Odissi film dance!). Her romance is at a rocky place during the first scene below as evidenced by the very humorous "interruption". Citaristi once described Rupa as "not a dancer" requiring her to "compromise a lot in solo" choreography—but I think Rupa does a lovely job as a dancer practicing her art at home.

Swarna Kamalam (1988, Telugu) - American-born Odissi danseuse Sharon Lowen performs a surprising Odissi stage number in this film, which I wrote extensively about in this previous post.

Payal Ki Jhankaar (1980, Hindi) - "Kar Singar Aise Chalat Sundari" - I lovingly refer to this film dance as "Odissi on crack"! Dancers Komal Mahuvakar (aka Roopini) and Surinder Kaur seem intent on dancing Odissi-inspired choreography as fast as humanly possible. Because the film centers on a young woman who loves dance, it is filled with dances of varying filmy quality, and the deployment of "Odissi" for the ending competition is a curious choice! It's not authentic Odissi, but the girls are clearly talented dancers to be able to pull off such a speedy number. While the film credits only list Badri Prasad as the choreographer, an image of the press book also credits Ravindra Atibuddhi and Shankar Behera—which must refer to the mumbai-based Odissi Guru Shankar Behera! Komal also learned Odissi in real life along with Kathak and Kuchipudi, and as a fun tidbit, she founded the still-active nonprofit organization Sparsha.

Orissa (2013, Malayalam) - Set in rural Odisha, this film tells the tale of a girl, Suneyi, who narrowly avoids being forced to become a devadasi when a social activist places her under the protection of a Malayali police officer who later falls in love with her. Suneyi's older sister Chandrabhaga, played by actress Kaniha, had already become a devadasi and performs the dance below. It is so bad! Sooo bad! The dance has some movements that are inspired from Odissi, but the overall choreography and North Indian costuming and setting are confused. Kaniha is a terrible dancer who looks stiff, lifeless, and hunchbacked (and is just as bad in this Bollywood-style dance number)—she kind of reminds me of poor Tabu who tried to dance a vaguely-classical number in Thakshak. What were the makers of Orissa thinking! Such a wasted opportunity to showcase some Odissi or Odissi fusion. At least the cinematography is sparkling...

Start 1:03

Of course, there is also Minati Mishra's Odissi dance number in the Bengali film Nirjana Saikate (1963) that I featured in last week's post. I was surprised I couldn't find more examples of Odissi dance in Bengali films given West Bengal's proximity to Odisha. Surely more are out there waiting to be discovered!

There are a few other films that have short and fleeting glimpses or inspirations of Odissi dance, such as "Thappatlo Thalalo" in Subhapradham, No. 78 Shanti Nivasa, the late Rituparno Ghosh's Chitrangada (Sharmila Biswas taught Rituparno Odissi for the film), Mira Nair's Kama Sutra (choreographed by Odissi dancer Debi Basu)...and even Michael Jackson's music video for "Black or White." And I'm still waiting for video of the Odissi dances in The Desire - Journey of a Woman (Hindi) to surface!

Further reading about Hamari Beti:


  1. Your post is a feast for my mind and eyes!

    I am grateful to you to show me such gems about my culture.

    1. Thank you sir. Aren't the Hamari Beti dances lovely! I'm sure that you have much more to add in this general topic, especially since everything I've posted about is gathered from books and secondary online sources. You have direct and lived experience, a crucial component in understanding history. :)


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