It’s not often that one gets culture-shocked. I’d consider it a luxury in this information-overloaded world of ours. We know, for example, that little Rajasthani girls don’t randomly dance in the Jaisalmer desert, and that the fish-lipped, enormously endowed Turkish bellydancer is clearly botox enhanced, but let pass such inaccuracies to enjoy a lie called ‘exotic’.
If someone had said three months ago, when I was leaving for an international dance fellowship in exotic Turkey, that Bollywood would be the biggest surprise of my trip, I’d have laughed. Now, having spent three months there in the company of people from 13 different nationalities, I hope you’ll believe me when I say, Bollywood as a force, is as shocking as it is inspiring. If you just let go.
“What does a laddoo taste like?” Rahayu, my Indonesian roommate casually asked me one afternoon. Indonesia, it seems, isn’t just fed on Bollywood films, even their local film industry is dominated by an Indian family aptly surnamed ‘Punjabi’. Rahayu loves Karan Johar films. A Muslim from Jakarta, she can sing the first few lines of the bhajan Om Jai Jagdish and lusts after the orange-coloured balls actors offer each other in the films. Her pal, 20-year-old Maulvi is a big fan of Hawa Hawaii from Mr India. Thanks to him I was once forced to the song in my nightie at 1am one night.
Lucas, an Argentinean is a Latin American ballroom dancing champion. So everytime he decided to impress me with his rendition of ‘Om Shanti Om’, I mistook it for a samba number. Vladimir, a Georgian dancer in our troupe, didn’t speak a word of English, or Turkish, communicating instead with an extraordinary smile and by ruffling people’s hair. The first time I met him, he sang the Mithun numbers Jimmy Jimmy and Duniya Hai Dilwalo Ki. It is difficult to explain the shock of meeting a foreign-language-speaking bonafide foreigner break into a song you heard last in 1989 on Chhaya Geet. Yes, it makes sense because erstwhile USSR was known to be a big fan of Mithun, back in the Cold War years when Indians named their kids Natasha and Tanya. But there’s still an element of surprise that no amount of second-hand knowledge can prepare you for.
Bollywood is as big a point of curiosity as the caste system. ‘Is India really like it’s shown in Slumdog Millionaire?’ makes a close third. And Taj Mahal fourth. As an authentic Bombay citizen, I was expected to break into a Bollywood number on demand, anywhere! In one class, one of my dance teachers asked me to dance to the song Ring-ring-ringa for everyone.
I always get cold feet when someone asks me to do a Bollywood dance. Firstly, I’m not happy being a wind-up doll. Secondly, I feel Bollywood dancing isn’t as much about stereotypical steps like jhatkas and dhak-dhak moves as it is about the attitude. To me, the best ambassadors of Bollywood dancing are street kids. Uber confident, they break into a dance on a traffic signal, in a ladies compartment, pretty much anywhere, anytime. They dance with their heads up, and look into your eyes should they catch you staring. When they dance, they don’t focus as much on the actual step as the personality of the star they’re imitating. But even their imitation has a personality of its own. Their mistakes look like they have a purpose.
Initially I tried to get a Youtube crashcourse on Bollywood dancing to impress my international fellows. But Youtube is banned in Turkey, and soon I realised the futility of such attempts. You can imitate a dance, but not a dancer. In Bollywood, I find most stars have their own brand of dancing, Govinda and Salman being my favourites. In that sense, the street kids I volunteer with understood the essence of dancing way better than I. Whatever you do, do it in style. Feel no less than Kareena Kapoor or Hrithik.
I spent three months learning excruciatingly difficult Turkish folk dances, where one’s feet spend more time in the air than on the ground. I knew that by the end, even if I got 50 percent of it right, it would be a big achievement. But that didn’t dishearten me. I danced in the last row, I danced in front of hundreds, on primetime TV, knowing very well I could barely do the dance. But I did it in style.