Indian Dances in Western Films about India: Part 4 (Coproductions)

Sunday, January 1, 2012
At last, the final installment of the "Indian Dances in Western Films about India" series!  This post looks at Indian dances in Western-Indian historical coproductions about India.  As I was finishing up Part 3 I realized that I had not included the gorgeous Padmini dances from Pardesi, a crime for sure!  I wasn't sure where they would fit in this series since the film was a coproduction between India and the Soviet Union...thus, Part 4 was born. Coproductions with India get to "cheat" in the sense that they have lots of Indian assistance and input which results in more authentic dances.  Unfortunately outside of Pardesi I've only been able to find one other coproduction with classical-inspired dances in it, so I've split this post into two sections: Soviet-Indian coproductions and the film Jhansi Ki Rani.

Soviet-Indian Coproductions

Raj Kapoor in Shree 420
Russian interest in Indian films is a fascinating subject of study!  A couple great reads are the article "Soviet-Indian Coproductions: Alibaba as Political Allegory" by Masha Salazkina and the book "Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas: The Culture of Movie-Going After Stalin" by Sudha Rajagopalan. From these sources I learned that Soviet-Indian cinematic ties began in the 1950s and seem to have sprung from the political affinity of India and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union apparently kicked things off by "courting neutralist India" and sending a group of filmmakers and officials there which was reciprocated in a visit by Indian filmmakers in 1954 resulting in an "official proclamation of friendship and cooperation between the cinemas of the two countries."  It was very interesting to read that Raj Kapoor was a member of the Indian visiting group (along with Bimal Roy, Nargis, and others) and was said to have taken "copious notes" when the group visited the Soviet Institute of Cinematography, the "world's first film institute."  Kapoor seems to have been a critical component of the Soviet-Indian film friendship and there are lots of Russian connections in his work; one of the most endearing was his song about his Russian hat and Indian heart in "Mera Joota Hai Japani" from Shree 420.

Russian Sholay
Soviet people were exposed to Indian films beginning with an Indian film festival held that same year, 1954, in several soviet cities (Awara was apparently the big hit), and the interest exploded from there.  It's very sweet to read accounts of Soviet people's love for Indian films and of how Indian stars were royally received there.  The colorful escapism, melodious songs and beautiful stars of Hindi films seemed to capture the popular imagination of Soviets living in a struggling, postwar environment where Hollywood film releases were strictly controlled.  Perhaps the Soviet people  identified with the social issues and colonial legacy themes found in early Indian films and later with the "angry young man" films highlighting the frustrations of the underprivileged in the 70s and 80s.  The political climate of de-Stalinisation beginning in the mid 1950s provided a ripe environment for Indian films to flourish as the new government "initiated the relative liberalisation of leisure and culture, and displayed renewed interest in addressing popular tastes."  Postwar Russian cinema still "toed the party line" but began to focus on the "nuclear family and its trials instead of the larger, state-centered epic narrative of the victorious nation"; Indian melodramas clearly fit perfectly into this trend.

Even more fascinating than the popularity of Indian films in the Soviet Union were the intentional coproductions created jointly by the two countries.  Salazkina points out that most of these coproductions sought to have equal representation from each county in all functions, even up to the point of having two directors, one from each country.  These coproductions were "meant to create films that would hybridize each culture's favored motifs and narrative structures, in the hopes of creating truly popular films."  Here are all the Soviet-Indian coproductions she lists: Pardesi (Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray, 1957); Black Mountain (Chernaya Gora, 1971); Rikki Tikki Tavi (1975); Eastward, Beyond the Ganges (Voshod Nad Gangom, 1975); Alibaba and the 40 Thieves (1980); Sohni Mahiwal (Legenda O Lyubvi, 1984); Shikari (Po Zakonu Dzhunglei, 1991); and Ajooba (Chernyj Prints Adzhuba, 1991).  Mere Naam Joker (1970) and Mother India (1957) are not listed because they were not full coproductions like the above films and only had some Russian assistance.

I've browsed through all of the coproductions that are available to view online and with the exception of Pardesi, most look like native Indian films and seem modeled after the masala commercial style of Sholay.  They starred well-known Hindi film stars (Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, Dimple Kapadia, etc.), and the Russian presence seemed to only be visible in the inclusion of a blond-haired character or two.  Pardesi really stands alone in its obvious goal of having clear visual markers of its joint origins; it also is unique in having an artsy bent and featuring some beautiful semi-classical dances.

Pardesi (Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray in Russian, 1957) - The first Soviet-Indian coproduction ever, this film (also known as Journey Beyond Three Seas or Travels Beyond the Three Seas) was based on the travelogues of a Russian merchant (Afanasy Nikitin) who visited India in the fifteenth-century.  The Dusted Off blog has an excellent, detailed review of the film with lots of screencaps.  The film used to be available with English subtitles online but is now viewable (without subtitles) at Russian film studio Mosfilm's YouTube Channel here.  Mosfilm's channel is quite awesome- they've uploaded a ton of classic Russian films that seem otherwise hard to find; the only detractor is most of the channel is in the Cyrillic Russian script, and Google translate only gets you so far.

Padmini dances two sumptuous numbers in the film and has a small acting role--her presence greatly surprised me!  The Indian films and stars that were most popular in the Soviet Union were Hindi films and stars, and Padmini was best known and did her best work in South Indian (Tamil/Telugu/Malayalam) films.  I would have expected Vyjayanthimala to be recommended for the role given her Hindi film and dance hits in the early-to-mid 1950s.  At first I thought Padmini must have been recommended for her role in Pardesi by Raj Kapoor (an essential figure in Soviet-Indian coproductions as mentioned in the intro) but then I realized her films with him weren't until 1960 (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai) and 1970 (Mera Naam Joker).  After strolling through all the wonderful Padmini posts at Richard's Dances on the Footpath blog, it seems the Hindi film world at the time of Pardesi's making would have only known of Padmini from her dances in the Hindi films Mr. Sampat (1952) and Shiv Bhakta (1955).  Maybe Raj Kapoor, the likeliest person to have brought Padmini to the Pardesi production, was a fan of her more prolific South Indian film work at that time.  That might also explain why she later was featured in some of his films. :)

Temple Dance - The entire scene leading up to this dance is worth a watch for the striking cinematography and use of the color medium.  Oleg Strizhenov, who plays the Russian merchant, is led through the Indian temple as he gazes around with utter amazement.  Doesn't Oleg have the most striking looks? Piercing eyes and an almost luminescent face!  But none more luminous than the stunning Padmini who dances here with what I can only describe as the 'Padmini X-factor.'  With Padmini it's all about the little things- the facial expressions, the side-bobs of the head... the way she puts everything together into a graceful, effortless whole.  Her performance here is simply mesmerizing.

Embedding disabled; click image to link.  Dance should begin at 10:16.

"Nadir Dheem Tana Dere Na" - The appearance of the South Indian veena instrument in this song was a nice find;  doesn't Padmini look gorgeous and regal draped along it!  Her dance performance is just as lovely, and I love how far her backbends extend.  If only the choreographer of this film was known (anybody who knows Russian want to translate the credits for me? pretty please?)! Certainly Padmini must have had a great influence on her movements. 

Embedding disabled; click image to link.  Dance should begin at 31:20.

Jhansi Ki Rani (Hindi, 1953) 

While this film doesn't appear to be a full-fledged "friendship" coproduction like the Russian ones above, it had a lot of Western help so I think it qualifies.  It was directed by Sohrab Modi, and among the many Western names in the technical credits is Ernest Haller (Director of Photography) who is best known for his cinematographic work in Gone with the Wind.  The film was also substantially cut down in length and released in the US as "The Tiger and the Flame" in what appears to be 1956.  The full 2-hour Hindi version is available at Shemaroo's YouTube channel here; strangely, it is in black and white although the film bills itself as the "first Technicolor film in India."  I wrote a brief review of the US version of the film here.

As I watched the credits I was excited to find part of the dances were choreographed by Madame Simkie!  'Simkie' was a long-time dance partner of Uday Shankar in his company!  Shankar's dance style stamp is clearly evident in the two lovely dances from the film below.  The choreography has many influences from the dances of Kerala (like Mohiniattam and Kathakali) that give it a lilting, spiraling touch with no sharp or geometric lines. Simple, but very lovely, and a great example of what Uday Shankar's dances must have been like!  I'm quite positive that Vinod Chopra must have choreographed the British ballroom dance seen in the film.

Court Dance - What a strange yet beautiful dance this is!  I hated it when I first saw the film a few years ago, but it's grown on me more and makes more sense now given the Uday Shankar connection.  It's a stage/court dance done for the king and queen and while it features some eccentrically dressed male dancers (looks like the costume designer was going for a Kathakali/Kerala folk influence, but what's with the big, fluffy wig?), the group of female dancers are my favorite with their graceful, soft movements choreographed into nice patterns. The female soloist is introduced with rising flames at 36:22 and has a truly ugly costume!  Last, don't forget to note the most bored drum player ever at 34:33. (The color version of this dance in the US version is available here).  The black and white version videos have been removed so I have embedded the color (US) versions below.

Climax Dance - Placed right before the climax of the film, this dance is annoyingly interspersed with military action clips.  Like the first dance above, it looks just like something Simkie would have choreographed.  The movements are simple but beautiful, and I spy some slight Mohiniattam and Kathak influences throughout. (The color version of this dance from the US version is available here).  The black and white version videos have been removed so I have embedded the color (US) version below.

So who is the main female dancer in both of these numbers? I've speculated for some time that it is Kathak exponent Roshan Kumari given that she is credited as having danced in this film.  However, now having given some screencaps a closer look I'm not so sure!  Take a look:
Roshan Kumari in Jalsaghar
Unknown dancer in climax dance, Jhansi Ki Rani
Unknown dancer in court dance, Jhansi Ki Rani

Now I'm all confused!  Neither of the dancers really look like Roshan Kumari.  The climax dancer bears the closest resemblance, but the more I look at the screencaps the more I see the differences; while she has the same high cheekbones, her nose is very wide and bulbous at the end and her face shape longer and thinner than Roshan's.  I had the thought that perhaps there was a big time gap between the two films and maybe Roshan was much younger in Jhansi Ki Rani, but there is only a five year difference.  I know! Maybe Roshan had a nosejob! ;)

On that note, the series has come to a close! Happy New Year!


  1. A 2001 movie
    'Sisters' by Sergei Bodrov also has several Bollywood moments. Irrespective of that I found it quite enjoyable. A review here:
    The news about Roshan Kumari is new to me; her mother ( I found it only today)is one of my favourite singers. Here is a faded picture with her parenys and Danny Kaye.

  2. The missing link

  3. Interesting film you've mentioned; I will have to check it out, especially since the review says the girls dance to Bollywood music. The video is hosted on the "RussianGangsterFilms" channel so you know it's got to be good! ;) Regarding Roshan Kumari, I'm not sure if you've already seen it, but you should check out
    Richard's post about her (and the comments) about the identity of her mother- great stuff there:
    (sheesh, I thought I'd fixed the Blogger comment url html issue but it looks like it's still not working)

  4. nargis recommended padmini for the role in pardesi.because they were friends.and their great friendship started from 1953,i think.but padmini is more popular in russia than nargis.because she started dancing in soviet union frm 1950 and made a regular dance trip after every 6 months

    1. Anon - Thanks for the info. Nice to know they were friends! And it's not hard at all to see why Russia fell in love with Padmini. :)

  5. do u know that after this film,soviet union released padmini's stamp.thus she became the first indian artist whose stamp was released in a forign country.there is also raj kapoor's and gandhiji's stamp there.but it was released later. Also a imp place in moscow was named 'padmini street'..whenever she visits russia she used to stay there.she had made last visit on 2004,i think.
    raj kapoor knows padmini personaly from 1955.
    When padmini went to participate international youth fest in moscow in 1958,(where more than 120 coutries participated,and padmini won best classical dancer award).she stayed in a hotel there. Raj was also in the same hotel,he came there to by award for jagte raho.
    he asked padmini to act in his next film from that hotel, which is jis desh mein ganga behti
    u know about sangam.?the role meant for padmini hv to do it.but because a son is born ,and she hv to look after her boy, she refused to do it. So it went to vyjayanthi.
    But she had acted in many movies when she was pregnent ,including aashiq1962.she was 4 months pregnent while shooting this film

  6. anon - Thanks for the info! I didn't know that about the Padmini stamp and street name in Russia- clearly she was very popular and well known in those times. And that is very interesting how Padmini supposedly became known to Raj Kapoor. Did some googling on the moscow youth fest and found that has some footage from the 1957 and 58 events, but I didn't see any footage of Indian dance or Padmini, just a brief clip of Nargis. :(

  7. in the youth fest,padmini got 1st prize in classical dancer catogory, and ragini got 3rd prize for fork dance catogory,.in kerala padmini ' s marriage was the only marriage in which ,there was a great media coverage.more than 50,000 people from all over south india and maharastra came to see her marriage.a special post office was also opened ,so the people can send greetings to padmini. For any info about padmini,u can contact me at is my utube channel

  8. anon - As I said in my other comment, so you are padmini162! Nice to meet you. I've enjoyed your Padmini/Lalitha dance uploads from Vedhala Ulagam on your channel - thanks for the good work!

  9. do u know. That actually according to the script of vanchikotai valliban/raj tilak ,padmini has to win the competition.but vyjayantji's grandmothet was against it.she argued tnat my vyjayanthi is a famous dancer,then how could she loss the padmini told director that let vyjayanthi win( padmini is always kind to othets).but he didnt agree .so padmini told let me take vyjayanthi's role and vyjayanthi take my role.that also he didnt agree.thus atlast story was changed such that no one wins

    1. anon/padmini62? - That's some juicy gossip about the competition dance! Thanks for sharing :)

  10. is there any written material about dance of padmini and raginin ji in film Kalpana and dance of helen and Ragini ji in film shikari

    1. I haven't written about either of those dances on this blog (assuming you mean the 1960 Kalpana, not 1948), but Richard at the Dances on the Footpath blog has: Kalpana, Shikari.

  11. Ragini was the choreographer/dance director for the film khozdanie za tri morya.


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