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Whither classical heritage in Bollywood films?
By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
There was a time when Hindi cinema would repeatedly turn to India's classical music and dance heritage for sustenance.
There were such exquisite films based on Indian classical dancing as "Kalpana" in 1948 where the real-life couple Uday and Amala Shankar performed a classical Indian ballet through which the story unfolded.
Among other films that explored the deep-rooted connection between dance and cinema were V. Shantaram's "Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje" in 1955, where the director's wife Sandhya co-starred with Kathak exponent Gopi Krishna for a choreographic odyssey, and S.S. Vasan's "Chandralekha", which also opened the same year.
In the 1960s films about Indian dance like Vijay Anand's "Guide", Lekh Tandon's "Amrapali" and Subodh Mukherjee's "Abhinetri" gave trained dancer-actresses like Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini a chance to display their nimble feet while enhancing their celluloid image as deeply resourceful actresses.
All that stopped with K. Vishwanath's "Jaag Utha Insaan" and "Sur Sangam". Both were massive successes in the southern Indian original but thundering flops in Hindi in spite of the masterful dancing of Sridevi and Jaya Prada.
Films about classical music and musicians were also a favourite - from Vijay Bhatt's "Baiju Bawra" in the 1950s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Anuradha" in the 1960s to Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Abhimaan" in the 1970s.
Thereafter, the disco culture, represented by the plagiarised pop music of Bappi Lahiri, took over Hindi cinema in the 1980s, rendering all classical arts futile if not fatuous.
But just when we thought films based on the classical arts were all but lost to mainstream Hindi cinema, came along two films to prod awake the classical heritage.
"Dance Like A Man" and "Morning Raga" are based on the plays of Mahesh Dattani. Both explore the polemics and passions that segregate today's generations from the Indian classical heritage of the past.
While "Morning Raga" takes a look at Carnatic music through the eyes of a practitioner - played brilliantly by Shabana Azmi who learnt Carnatic music to play the role - in "Dance Like A Man", Arif Zakaria and Sobhana are remarkably in character as two fading Bharatanatyam dancers coping with their daughter's (Anoushka Shankar) future in a world where the arts are becoming redundant.
Sobhana, who is the niece of yesteryear dancer-actress Padmini, feels "Dance Like A Man" offers a dancer like her a rare opportunity to practise her passion on screen.
"Otherwise where are the films about dancers and dancing?" she asks.
Perhaps representing the last of our classical-dancing actresses Sobhana belongs to that dying school of art where actresses applied their dancing skills to their on-screen roles.
Though both the films are in English, "Dance Like A Man" and "Morning Raga" are creatively equipped to combat the hurricane of philistinism that has taken over Indian mainstream cinema.
While the classical song is extinct in our cinema, Indian classical dance has over the decades gone from "Kalpana" to "Choli ke peeche kya hai" in Subhash Ghai's "Khalnayak" where Madhuri Dixit's postures were midway between that of a ballerina and a temptress.
Maybe "Dance Like A Man" will take Hindi cinema back to its roots in the classical arts and away from the dirty dancing formula.