Indian Dances in Western Films about India: Part 1 (The Classical Era)

Monday, November 7, 2011
Still from Kama Sutra (1996)
Throughout the past few years, I've not given much attention to historical films about India made in the West.  When I was reminded of the Odissi-inspired dances in Mira Nair's Kama Sutra a few weeks back, I had a sudden urge to answer the question "how have Indian dances been presented in Western historical films about India?"  A new project was born!

Little did I realize that researching that question leads to the fascinating and complex topic of the depiction of the British empire in India and the British Raj through cinema and television miniseries released back to the early 1900s.  There was practically an entire genre of adventure and action "empire films" in the 1930s made by the UK and the US, and the 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in India as evidenced by the many films and lavish miniseries released about the subject.  Critical to my research have been sites like these which give excellent lists of empire films and films about India: The British Empire in Film (archived here), and The British Empire.

From Kim (1950)
These productions give a fascinating glimpse into how British and other Western cultures constructed a view of their activities in India/South Asia and how that view changed over time.  Especially in older films, the British empire in India is painted as a valiant effort to save a "backwards" people from succumbing to their "intractable problems."  Indians are presented as exotic, simultaneously fascinating yet barbaric, and in need of British and Western intervention.  Often the films are propaganda pieces to garner public support of the occupation and military presence.  I'll discuss a bit more detail in Part 3 of this series.

For some fascinating reading on the subject, I would recommend the following books which you can preview much of on Google Books: Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema, and Cinema at the End of Empire: Politics of Transition in Britain and India; these look to be interesting books too but aren't available for preview: Outsider Films on India 1950-1990, and Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Empire Cinema.

From Der Tiger Von Eschnapur (1938)
So amid such orientalist and imperial attitudes, how were Indian dances treated in these films? Did white women in brownface just wave their hands around in some sort of bastardized Persian "bellydance" with unusual costumes?  Were any authentic South Asian movements utilized in the choreography?  Did representations change as the years passed? In attempting to answer these questions, I've split this post into three parts: Part 1 (The Classical Era), Part 2 (Rare Dances), and Part 3 (Orientalism). [Update: Also Part 4 (Coproductions)]

I've selected dances mostly from Western historical films about India due to their serious or propagandist attempt at presenting India's history and showing (or not even bothering to research and show) authentic, classical-based and/or courtly dance forms.  Modern films like The Love Guru or Marigold with lighthearted or modern "Bollywood" dances have not been included nor have documentaries like Louis Malle's Phantom India because the concern here is about authentic Indian dances being presented in constructed, artistic accounts of the past.

Part 1

The most authentic and beautiful dances in Western historical films and miniseries about India seem to be found in productions from the 1980s with the exception of 1951's The River.  The 80s saw a resurgence in interest about India in the UK and the US that was reflected in all the releases about the subject (or perhaps because of the releases?).  Think The Jewel in the Crown (1984), A Passage to India (1984), Peter Brooks' The Mahabharata (1989), Gandhi (1982), and even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).  What was it that led to such a Western fascination about India at that time?  Whatever it was, I'm glad it happened because productions of this period finally featured some decent Indian dances to show to Western film viewers.

The question remaining is why were these 80s productions leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors in presenting Indian dance with degrees of authenticity?  I think the answer lies obviously in the motivation of the films production.  A 1930s film was concerned with presenting an exotic India and probably never bothered with researching the authenticity of "base" dance forms.  Understanding what the 1980s films were concerned with is beyond my knowledge as it would require not only watching all of the films and miniseries and assessing their motivations but also understanding how Britain (and the US) were processing their colonial pasts at that time.  But clearly enough time had passed by the 80s that perhaps enough postcolonial assessment and reflection had accumulated to spur film productions that actually sought out more honest depictions of the past including honest, authentic depictions of dance.  What's surprised me the most is that after the 1980s, dance depictions seemed to revert back to less authenticity.  What was it about the 80s!  I'm sure there is lots of academic authorship on this subject; another topic to pursue!

Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986, UK, TV Miniseries) - This Masterpiece Theatre miniseries gets a gold star for having the most authentic classical dance of the series!  I knew it was going to be great when one of the characters actually identifies the dance to the British as Kathak (wow! It's not just some generic "Indian dance" or "Nautch dance").  But I was floored when the dance began and I saw famous Kathak danseuse Saswati Sen!  She's the same dancer who did the lovely Kathak dance in Shatranj Ke Khilari.  To top it all off, the actual dance itself is a beautiful and authentic Kathak number. Despite the horrible acting of Gandhi's character in the series, the dances are just right.

Video no longer available online

The Far Pavilions (1984, UK, TV Miniseries) - Kathak makes another appearance in this HBO miniseries (apparently HBO's first), but this time the dancer spends some time seated and performs a well-rounded mix of abhinaya and pure dance.  Despite the shots of the British officer's clearly-pleased "male gaze," I love the respect given to the dance form in the way the number is put together and the tone of the whole performance.  I would recommend browsing through this series as it's quite visually lavish with lots of scenes of Indian culture, though there is of course many white folk in awkward brownface (the Indian princess really takes the cake!) and a focus on "backwards" practices like sati and the like.
Starts 9:22

Later on in The Far Pavilions is a lavish Indian wedding scene which is followed by a brief Rajasthani folk dance that looks to my eye very similar to Kathak at 2:58 (and some folk dance at 3:40).  The presentation and quality of the first dance is noteworthy; the performer is clearly trained, and I love the appreciative reaction of her audience when she finishes.
Starts 43:45

The River (1951, France) - Given that many films about the British Raj take place in the northwest part of India (such as the Northwest Frontier, Khyber Pass, etc.), it is hard to find dance performances originating from South Indian dance traditions.  That's why the straight-from-Bharatanatyam-adavus performance in Jean Renoir's lushly-colored The River is so special even if the film is set in Bengal.  When I first saw this dance on YouTube long ago I thought it was yet another white girl playing Indian and attempting Indian dance; however, I recently learned that the dancer, Radha Burnier, was Rukmini Arundale's niece and the first graduate of Kalakshetra!  While the dance is quite good, especially for a nonIndian film, Radha's movements are a bit lanky with a lack of sharpness and completion (and the less said about  her facial expressions the better!) which surprised me given her dance background and my high expectations.  But it's always nice to see authentic dancers performing Indian dance in these films instead of some unskilled western person pretending to be Indian, and it's especially awesome to find a South Indian dance (the ONLY one I've seen so far).  And above all, this film is head and shoulders above its contemporaries in depicting Indian dance (and music) as it really was.

Queenie (1987, USA, TV drama) - I watched this two-part miniseries many years ago as a teen and was quite taken in by the half Indian character Queenie played by Mia Sara (whom I can never disassociate from Ferris Bueller's Day Off!).  I just learned recently that Queenie's character was based on the life of Merle Oberon, "Hollywood's First Indian Actress," who is said to have hid her Indian background and from pictures looks eerily similar to Manisha Koirala.  That aside, there is a scene where two Kathak dancers perform at a party but end up being interrupted by a drunk Queenie who thinks she can join in the fun; the dancers appear to be Indian and actually perform authentic movements making for an enjoyable viewing.

The Deceivers (1988, UK) - Despite the distracting presence of Pierce Brosnan, this Merchant Ivory film features a short sequence in which a young boy 'dances' some moves that are sort of inspired by Kathak and folk dance.  The dance is part of a larger, tense scene in which members of a secret society of murderers are exposed.  It's unfortunate the dance had to just be a sideshow to the violent scene and that the boy basically repeats the same movements with too many shots intercut.  I'm very suspicious that the dancer might be the same little boy in Sruthi Layalu and Swarna Kamalam!

Starts 55:42


  1. Hi Minai

    Great stuff. This and parts 2&3. Surprised to see Radha Burnier in a movie. I always knew of her only as the president of the Theosophical Society.


  2. Thanks cram - Interesting you mentioned that, I've just started to learn more about the Theosophical Society and its connections to Rukmini Devi, dance revival, etc., and it's really fascinating and quirky.

  3. Hi! Pleasantly surprised to come across "Radha's Dance" featuring Radha Burnier. I think the tale about revival of Bharatanrithyam is a very interesting case study especially when seen through Kalakshetra's role to set this up.


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