Recent Film Classical Dance Finds

Sunday, November 5, 2017

And...I'm back! :) Some personal matters have kept me away for a long time, but a moment of inspiration and deciding that my posts don't all have to be lengthy mini-dissertations led to a new post finally, yay! I've gathered a collection of some new classical dance finds in Indian films from the past few years as well as the exciting posting of some songs from Sringaram! Enjoy...

Sringaram (2007, Tamil) - It's been ten years since the devadasi period film Sringaram released, and while there is still no DVD or online release of all the songs or the whole film, director Sharada Ramanathan gave us a yet another glimmer of hope on her Facebook page this past March and June when she said that due to continued interest in the film it would be "out in the public domain soon" and "soon be with a main global network for all to see" with directions to "watch this space" to be informed when. Back in 2015 she had announced a summer DVD release after a Doordarshan telecast brought great interest in the film, but nothing materialized. But this time around, I'm apt to believe something will happen given the appearance online in the last few months of songs and dances from the film. For a throwback to my past posts about Sringaram, I reviewed the film back in 2010 (note that I need to replace all my photobucket-hosted photos on my blog, ugh!) and also wrote about its dance sequences.

"Three Seasons" - Posted to Sharada's YouTube account in April, "Three Seasons" features Saroj Khan's unusually on-beat choreography that is characteristic throughout the film, and trained Bharatanatyam dancers Aditi Rao Hydari and Hamsa Moily perform the Bharatanatyam and Odissi sourced and inspired movements beautifully in elegantly simple practice saris. I find it mesmerizing...

The lovely group procession dance sequence made an appearance last fall on Facebook as well here:

Edavapathi (2016, aka Idavappathi, Malayalam) - A fitting film to feature after Sringaram, Edavapathi brought together some top talent—direction by Lenin Rajendran who previously directed Malayalam dance-based films like Swathi Thirunal, Rathri Mazha, and Makaramanju, cinematography by the award-winning Madhu Ambat who also shot Sringaram and Makaramanju, and Sharada Ramanathan's media company seems to have been involved. The film tells two tales set in two different time periods. One is a modern-day story of a Tibetan monk and his love, and the second is based on Malayali poet Kumaran Asan's poem on Vasavadatta, a great devadasi from centuries ago that longed for the love of the Buddhist monk Upagupta. The modern portions depict the real-life challenges of the Tibetan refugees who have lived in the Mysore area for the past few decades without Indian citizenship but who long for their Tibetan homeland. Rajendran says that the film is ultimately "about the search for a peaceful abode, whether it be of the mind or a physical space" (The Hindu).

For the period portions of the film about the Vasavadatta-Upagupta story, Padma Subramanyam-trained dancer Uttara Unni plays the devadasi Vasavadatta, and Manisha Koirala portrays the role of Vasavadatta's mother! It's delightful to see the Manisha I remember so vividly from 90s films like Dil Se and Bombay come back to the silver screen in a heavy dancing role. A recent ovarian cancer survivor and divorcee, she has been through a lot over the years. Apparently Uttara and Manisha also play separate mother-daughter roles in the modern-day storyline as well.

"Rathisukha Saare" - Manisha is so adorable here! While I find her movements rather clumsy, she dances like someone who is truly enjoying the moment and radiates joy and charisma, whereas Uttara's movements seem more clinical and overly concerned with aesthetics and the external gaze...maybe its that plastered toothy smile she rarely deviates from? The Tibetan monk's attempt to interact with the dancer are awkward, but the courtesan seduction choreography at 2:42 is unabashedly sexy. What gorgeous indoor set design and lighting.

"Pashyathi Dishi" - Unfortunately we don't get to see the entire video song as featured in the film, but this clip shows off the talented vocalist (who clearly isn't recording live for this particular footage) and intersperses dance clips from the film starting at :50. We first see a male-female dancing duo of unknown identity (anyone know who they are?), and initially I thought the man was surely the Kathak dancer Anuj Mishra, but his facial features are different than Anuj's. Following are more clips of mother and daughter from the previous song's indoor setting. Look at Manisha's glorious smile at 1:53! THAT is how you embody joy my friends! Some Kathakali dancers are also sprinkled in around 2:40.

Starts at: 50

A bit more playful generic dancing can be seen in the modern-day set songs Njan Ariyum and Venalinte Chakril.

Kamboji (2017, Malayalam) - Kamboji follows in the footsteps of a long line of Malayalam films with significant Kathakali content, but here we finally get to see Vineeth and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy (whom I have praised many times on this blog!) together in a full-length feature for the first time. Kamboji is based on a true story from the 70s about the tragic love of a Mohiniattam dancer (Lakshmi) and Kathakali artist (Vineeth). And what tragedy it is—spoiler alert—Vineeth's character is convicted of murder, and as his last wish performs a Kathakali padam in full costume that ends in his being dragged to the gallows (Deccan Chronicle). Authenticity seems to have been sought for the dances in the film. I was surprised to read that Vineeth had never formally trained in Kathakali (really?), so took on "rigorous training" by Kalamandalam Narayanan (Times of India). It's no surprise however that the film's soundtrack is full of delicate and haunting melodies so common in South Indian film songs, and Kamboji's seem to have a nostalgic air to them.

"Chenthar Nermukhi" - Depicting the expression of love through song, this number was choreographed entirely by Vineeth including the way the shots are composed, and he won the Kerala State Film Award for it. It's clear from Vineeth's interviews about the film that he was careful to base the Mohiniattam and Kathakali dance movements in authenticity (The Hindu), an effort that, when combined with the gentle vocals and soft lighting, makes for a mesmerizing viewing experience. While Vineeth seems to only be able to move one eyebrow most of the time, Lakshmi's eye movements and facial expressions at 4:04 communicate volumes and remind me a vintage Vyjayanthimala!

"Nadavathil" - A scene at 1:12 of young boys practicing Kathakali steps is the first glimpse of dance in this song, followed by the romantic daydream sequence with dance starting at 1:50 and Lakshmi's glorious crowning alapadma-of-desire that rises like peacock plumage at 2:00. Finally a novel way of using the splayed open-fingered alapadma hand gesture in a film dance!

"Anguli Sparsam" - Slow burning and sensuous slow motion movements to match the vocals by Bombay Jayashri. Starting at 3:17, Lakshmi is dressed as what looks like a female Kathakali character and uses relevant choreography inspirations rather than the same old movements seen in countless other film Kathakali dances. But my most favorite part is at 3:55 when Jayashri sings "Sparsam" ("touch" in Malayalam) and Lakshmi pulls Vineeth's alapadma hands down in a cascading descent on her body. Hot!

Priyamanasam (2015, Sanskrit) - Speaking of Kerala's performing arts, the Sanskrit film Priyamanasam definitely belongs on the list, but it's controversy seems to have kept any full clips of it off the interwebs. Judging from the trailer below, it looks to have many pleasing dances including a rare stage Mohiniattam performance that I'd love to see.

Natyam (2016, Telugu) - 
Sandhya Raju is an excellent Kuchipudi dancer of the crisp Vempati Chinna Satyam tradition and directs the Hyderabad-based Nishrinkala Dance Academy in real life. In the indie short film Natyam (released on YouTube) she portrays an ideal upperclass housewife with a rekindled passion for dance from her past, and she is the film's choreographer as well. The film does end up looking like one extended Kirtilals jewelry commercial, but the cinematography and her sheer dancing talent make it a beautiful watch.

Starting from 19:38 onward, Sandhya's real-life Nishrinkala Dance Academy is a frequent location for various practice and other dance scenes interspersed with scenes from her character's life. My favorite is her practice solo at 23:04 below which showcases her lightfooted crisp Kuchipudi form.

Start 23:04

"Pranamu Pranavakaram" - Kuchipudi adavus, movements, and style abound in her big stage re-debut near the end of the film! Interesting filmwork and lighting highlight her talent. I'm not a big fan of the electric guitar fusion, but it's definitely a creative composition.

I just learned that Sandhya had previously danced throughout the beginning song of the 2012 Telugu devotional film Devasthanam, but she's restricted to doing the short bursts of dance postures seen in so many other classical dances in films. You can see her starting at 4:18 here (and yup, that's K. Vishwanath!) [Update: Video no longer available].

Aattakkatha (2013, Malayalam) - Another movie about a white chick who loves Indian dance! Aattakkatha centers on a European woman who comes to Kerala to study Kathakali at the famous Kalamandalam institution and falls in love there with a dancer portrayed by Vineeth. It's based on the real-life story of German actress Irina Jacobi who plays herself and at the time was in her fifth year of intensive training on scholarship in Kathakali at Kalamandalam.

Even though it seems like a poorly made film with old-school camera work, strange editing, a schizophrenic soundtrack and sound effects, atrocious voice dubbing, and really bad acting on the part of Irina, I think it's probably the first time a white chick learning Indian dance has been portrayed in such detail in a film. The film entirely revolves around the Kathakali performing art and its immediate environs, and it almost feels a bit documentary-like at times. But being that this is a white chick, she can't be perfect of course, so she is seen *gasp* smoking and *shock* drinking in the film which at one point is so egregious it requires antismoking and antialcohol public service warning messages to be displayed at the bottom of the screen.

Irina's Introduction Scene - Irina Jacobi is first seen in the film performing warm up face and upper body exercises under the direction of her guru's assistant. It's nice that the filmmakers let this scene linger for a while so we can get a flavor of what this art involves. This clip doesn't include the moments preceding when her guru's assistant puts oil into her eyes and she performs circular eye movements.

Dressing Scene - I don't think I've ever seen the process of putting together a Kathakali costume depicted in such detail before in a commercial film. Here we have the novelty of a white chick being the subject of awkward upper body wrapping, but luckily at 2:50 we get to see her actually perform on stage. It's only introductory facial movements (and she seems especially sweaty), but that's a big accomplish for a white chick in an Indian film!

Practice Scene - Here's the customary practice scene featuring Vineeth, and Irina's interest is so "pure" she is mesmerized by it.

"Heemambari Thoomanjalil" - Vineeth and Irina's characters fall in love and have a naughty night in the film, and its depiction in this song is simply laugh-out-loud horrid! Amidst annoying jump cuts and outdated instrumentals, Irina looks like the most uncomfortable, bored, and awkward heroine ever. They even try to pay homage to the vastly superior film Vanaprastham at 3:22 when Vineeth tries to literally smear his makeup on Irina's face in what was supposed to be a sensuous allusion to physical intimacy in the other film but looks here like an attack by facepaint. 100% cringeworthy start to finish!

You can watch the whole film without English subtitles here—other parts of interest are the Kathakali performance at 48:46, Irina's second practice scene with her angry guru at 1:02:50, and Irina's third practice scene with yet a still angry guru at 1:35:06. I wonder if Irina Jacobi is related to Isa Jacobi who came to India from Germany in 1979 per the ICCR to train in Kathakali (The Hindu)?

Foreigners (largely white westerners) have been coming to institutions and gurus in India to study directly from the source for decades, and I was surprised to read that the Kalamandalam institution in Kerala gets the most students from Germany! France has been another popular source of students seeking dance training in India. Back in the 1920s and 30s there was Simkie in Uday Shankar's troupe, later in the 70s and 80s there were Bharatanatyam students like Devayani who was featured in America Ammayi and Laurance Pourtale  who featured in the original Tamil version Melnattu Marumagal, and recently "Paris Laxmi" has featured in Malayalam films and actually married an Indian Kathakali dancer (post coming on her later?). And of course there is the American native Sharon Lowen who studied Odissi/Chhau/Manipuri and was featured in Swarmakamalam.

Uttama Villain (2015, Tamil) - Kamal Hassan was back at it in 2015's Uttama Villain which had a folklore film being shot within the film. Wanting to do something similar to the "folk art" Yakshagana that he was familiar with, Kamal chose to draw inspiration from "folk" performing art traditions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu like Theyyam/Kaliyattam and Koothu/Villu Paatu traditions as inspiration because of the "visual and colour appeal" (The Hindu). And it's definitely brashly colorful in the film with a goal of creative spectacle rather than authenticity.

Jaanisaar (2015, Hindi) -  The North Indian courtesan mujra dances in this period film by debutant actress and dancer Pernia Qureshi are clinical and lifeless and have only a thin veneer of surface prettiness. The film has pedigree behind it—direction by Muzaffar Ali of 1981 Umrao Jaan fame and choreography by famous Kathak gurus Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj. But wow did it turn out terribly. And I learned long ago that having a famous guru choreograph your film does not translate into good dance on screen. I think this India Today review sums it up best: "Jaanisaar, in which even Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj cannot make the leading lady look's just her inability to do abhinaya or emote well...[t]hat explains why there are hardly any close-ups of Qureshi in the film and the camera keeps tracking her." This becomes even more painfully obvious in the marketing of the film which tried to capitalize on Pernia with a hilarious Learn Indian Classical Dance with Pernia Qureshi "instructional" course which has essentially zero instruction. 

"Hamein Bhi Pyar Kar Le" - Kumudini Lakhia choreographed this mujra with "old traditional kathak" movements. Pernia says that Birju Maharaj had to "break the Kuchipudi out of me first" to learn Kathak before she trained with Kumudini. Sigh.

Pernia has two other dances in the film you can subject yourself to: the group dance in Achchi Surat Pe, and the outdoor "aren't I so pretty?" frolicking of Teri Katili Nigahon Ne Mara.

Some Other Finds

Last, here's a collection of some other finds of mine that I didn't feel warranted a dedicated spot in the post. The playlist includes Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani (2015 Hindi) and cartoonified weirdness in Kochadaiiyaan (2014 Tamil), Rukmini Vijayakumar in Bajarangi (2013 Kannada), Trisha in Yennai Arindhaal (2015 Tamil), Anushka and Ashrita Vemuganti in Baahubali 2 (2017, Telugu), Meghana Raj in Allama (2017 Kannada), Aditi Rao Hydari in Wazir (2016 Hindi), and other random classical bits and pieces, whether good or terrible!

Here's Rukmini Vijayakumar in Bajarangi (2013 Kannada):


  1. For some reason, the first dance reminded me of Neetha Nagar (1946) dances. Do you see any resemblance?

    1. Hi Swarup! The general setting and "twin dance" style is definitely similar, though the choreographic style differs quite a bit. The Sringaram dances are so strikingly synced to the beat which is quite a novel thing to see. Good to hear from you!!

  2. Cassidy Minai has finally put up a new post and Swarup has commented. This feels so nostalgic!

    It was a lot of fun looking at all the dances from these relatively contemporary films, most of them from Kerala, and also to see the names of directors whom I can check out. (So there is a Malayalam director whose first name is Lenin? That is soo Kerala!)

    Attakkatha looks particularly interesting to me, despite the flaws. I might even watch that copy without subtitles.

    And the scene from the Tamil film Uttama Villain is very funny!

    Cassidy, you are right that the films on the playlist aren’t as noteworthy. I know that “Mohe Rang Do Laal” is very popular, but I don’t care much for the film scene. I actually prefer a "dance cover" by Aishu, which I find charming:

    Anyway, I hope your long break is over now and we’ll see more posts soon!

    P.S. Swarup, I quickly glanced at two Neecha Nagar dances, and I see your point re. the general set-up. To really compare the dances, I'd have to look more closely. But I know you were directing the question at Cassidy, and maybe she would have a better idea about this.

    1. Hehe, yes it's like no time has passed at all. :) Kerala has so much quality cinema you should definitely look into. Lots of depressing stories too that are good for a rainy day. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Attakkatha--Irina Jacobi's acting and weird voice dubbing are hilarious. :) I make no guarantees, but let's hope I can get out some more posts soon!

  3. Welcome back ! I was desperate to tell you about Kamboji! But you got it. Hope you saw this single from Padmavati . Watch it !

  4. Thanks for the welcome! I'm glad people are still willing to come back to my blog after such a long absence. :) Kamboji is such an awesome find, I can't remember how I came across it but I was so excited! So much quality dance it made me want to do a post. Yes I saw that same Padmavati dance by Deepika Padukone. I think I'm getting grumpy about North Indian dance styles in popular Indian films since they don't enlighten me the same as the southies!

  5. Welcome back!!! I had almost given up that you won't come back!

  6. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!

    Hope the new year will bring out more gems from you.


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