How Bollywood assigns classical dance only to female bodies considered worthy of the male gaze
The sudden introduction of classical dance in a film acts as a placeholder for several values held by the girl on screen, which the film cannot delve into deeply. It transforms into a proxy for everything the word 'sanskaari' can convey.
Perhaps it is because I dance that I noticed, but there seems to be a pattern in Bollywood. Only certain girls dance Indian classical styles. Boys fall harder in love when they see the girl of their dreams break out into Kathak or Bharatanatyam. Often, there are children involved in the scene. The films I refer to themselves have little to do with Indian classical dance, or the girl’s journey as a dancer. Yet, there will be that singular scene of the classically-trained girl, primed for romantic love — often within a song — and then the movie will go along its way, with no reference to dance ever again.
Also, these dance sequences do not take place in the dream realm, as many a Bollywood song goes into, but most often are vignettes of the everyday-falling-in-love process. The parallels across these songs are hard to discount and are interesting for what they convey about classical dance, the classical dancer, and the continued anxiety of Indian classical dance — of who they are willing to take in and who they wish to keep out. The films I refer to were released from the 1990s onwards — and were part of my own growing up years — all the way to 2020. And since I am no avid cinephile, I reckon they are largely successful commercial Bollywood films.
The sudden introduction of classical dance is a placeholder for several values held by the girl on screen, which the film cannot delve into deeply. Classical dance transforms into a proxy for everything the word 'sanskaari' can convey. In effect, the form marks the girl dancing it under two overarching rubrics — that she is a ‘good’ Indian girl, and that the love she commands is pure (that is, it is not lust, and she is genuinely loved with marriage as the end-goal). The male gaze permeates this scene, with the dancer always watched by the lover or the lover-to-be, and the camera following his gaze in at least one shot. And then, the camera usually pans into his reaction, often in awe, transfixed, falling further in love, and in some cases, endearing himself to her by trying out the same moves clumsily. Why clumsily? Because good boys do not indulge in the femininity of classical dance. The same dance which positions the girl as virtuous and cultured positions the man as weak and effeminate, and lacking masculine presence.
Remember Kajol as Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), in the post-college phase? Enough has been written about how Anjali had to completely transform her very being to win Rahul’s love. Apart from the sarees and the long hair, it seems that intensive Kathak lessons must have also been part of the process. Shah Rukh’s poise wavers as she glides gracefully (in a saree, of course) through the movements. Of course, the kids mirroring her in the background serve as a reminder of her way with children (read: she’ll be a great mother!), and that she also possesses the know-how to transmit Indian culture to future generations. There is nothing wrong, in isolation, with a woman being or doing either of these things. My critique lies more with which kind of bodies can transmit and embody classical dance forms, and who therefore, is ‘allowed’ to be a classical dancer in Bollywood's imagination.
What Bollywood films tend to say is that Indian classical dance is the reserve of the (usually) upper caste and upper class woman. The knowledge of classical dance is used to signal a woman who is the true embodiment of the 'Bharatiya naari'. Sartorial cues are often coupled with dance to create optimum impact, which brings to mind the ensemble cast of Mohabbatein (2000).
While we are introduced to three young heterosexual couples, there is only one whose body can perform classical dance. The only body which is a permissible vessel for Indian classical dance is the one that does not wear short, ‘revealing’ Western clothes — a sign of corrupted 'sanskaar'. In two separate instances in the film, the two other women are physically covered with clothing by their respective love interests, to imply that classical dancers cannot be women who also work out in sports bras. Both are taught a ‘lesson’ in morality before a reciprocal love story can emerge.
The girl (played by Preeti Jhangiani) steeped in ‘Indian’ values alone, signalled by her salwar kameez, is the only one shown dancing Kathak. In an elaborate scene which shows the three couples falling in love simultaneously in a dance sequence, she is the only one assigned a ‘solo’ Kathak sequence, while Jimmy Shergill's character looks on wordlessly. Just as in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, her love for children is made evident by showing that she volunteers at a children’s hospital. One might think of these two instances as a post-liberalisation resistance to Western corruption by Bollywood, since both these films came within a decade of liberalisation. The figure of the woman being used to further the ends of patriotic nationalism at the assumption of any threat is common. However, the trope continues well into the 2010s.
Raanjhana (2013), in the excellent ear-worm of a track 'Tum Tak', shows Sonam Kapoor's character, Zoya, rehearsing for a Kathak performance, as she is being watched from afar by Dhanush's Kundan. He falls into the river while watching — such is the spell-binding effect of her dance. Of course, here the narrative is complicated by the fact that it is an inter-religious, one-sided love story at play. However, the tropes of ‘serious’ love, the male (and upper-caste) gaze on the female dancing figure, and the deepening of affections while watching one’s love interest dance, all come into play.
Two States (2014), in a completely different context, has Alia Bhatt's character bring in Bharatanatyam at a wedding, with Arjun Kapoor's Krish looking suitably impressed by the turn of events. As in the other examples mentioned, the act of the man gazing at the woman is an important feature for the woman dancing a classical style within the film. She is hardly ever shown dancing for her own joy or interest in the craft. Instead, coupled with the man’s gaze on her and his deepening affection, classical dance becomes a marker of the only respectable kind of love known to mainstream Bollywood — love which culminates in marriage. The display of classical dance, then, is a subtle evocation of the nexus between nationalism’s inherent patriarchy and its hold over the woman’s body.
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), a film which deals with the unconventional theme of sexual dysfunction, also resorts to the now familiar montage of falling in love with a girl as she dances some version of a classical dance enveloped by children. Ayushmann Khurrana’s character is one who attempts to mock copy the steps in the song 'Kanha'. Considering how the film is attempting to undo ideas of masculinity, the inability of Khurrana to master a few dance steps seems to signal a very specific body imagined repeatedly in popular culture for classical dance, which is always female. Ishaan Khatter does the same in his debut Bollywood film Dhadak (2018), as Janhvi Kapoor's character shows him her Kathak moves. She gently and smilingly looks on at his inability to execute the same with ease and grace. The male body shuns the form, and perceives it instead as a tool to control and circumscribe the female body.
Even Thappad (2020), which goes to great lengths to show how Taapsee Pannu's Amrita is the ideal wife in every way, and did not therefore deserve even that singular fateful slap, has her character teaching Kathak to her neighbour’s daughter. Again, the ideal wife's image is brought forth via the trope of Indian classical dance and the presence of the child. The idea of a woman with her values in place, intent on transmitting these 'Indian' virtues to the next generation, is unsurprisingly foregrounded yet again.
The presence of these examples, one might argue, does not imply that classical dance is envisioned as only female, and for the good, sanskaari girls alone, who are, more often than not, loved with the intention of marriage. But the fact is that the girls who do not end up with a man are never shown practising a classical form. Deepika Padukone's character in Cocktail (2012), or Alia’s in Dear Zindagi (2016), or even Kangana Ranaut's Rani in Queen (2014) are characters that have been largely ‘rejected’ in some way by the male protagonist and his gaze, and they do nothing akin to classical dance.
The rebel characters are not the bodies classical dance will or can inhabit in Bollywood. This essay focuses on films that do not have dance in a driving role especially, only to examine what the presence of the classical dance is supposed to communicate to the audience. But even a dance-driven film like Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997) positions the classical dancing girl as the one worthy of romantic love. Shah Rukh’s character is made aware of his love for Madhuri Dixit’s Pooja in her Kathak teacher’s house, as she is surrounded by children (surprise, surprise).
Karisma Kapoor’s character, Nisha, lacks the feminine mystique required of the show’s protagonist, seemingly due to her training solely in modern dance, and again owing to the fact that the male lead shows no respectable romantic intentions towards her. These disparate instances seem too much of a coincidence for them to have no significance or purpose.
Classical dance, therefore, is a tool to create a visual binary between the good girl and the bad girl. Only truly good girls — who will get married, not show too much skin, have Indian virtues, exhibit a tenderness towards children, are upper caste and upper class — can dance classical dance, even as a hobby. Other categories of women, which include the ones who cannot command marital love, smoke or drink, have mental health conditions, and who seem ‘damaged’, cannot dance a classical form. Thus, while such films on the one hand conflate the idea of good or 'sanskaari' Indian girls with the figure of the classical dancer, what they further do is aim to distance themselves from the idea of the pre-colonial hereditary dancer as the debased figure, straddling the worlds of entertainer and prostitute in common understanding.
In this placing of classical dance only on bodies primed for marriage, it once again moves away from that pre-colonial hereditary dancer and her romantic associations, often governed by patronage. It reassures the viewer that their middle-class daughter can learn Indian classical dance without losing her morality; that dancing will not make her unfit for marriage (assured by the near constant presence of the male gaze in any dancing scene). Instead, it makes her even more desirable in all the right ways, which are guided by the intent to culminate the desire in marriage. It reminds the viewer of what the good Indian mother must remember to transmit to her children in the form of Indian values, which is assumed to be the key goal in the learning of dance.
In positioning classical dance on certain bodies alone, the effect is two-fold. Firstly, it places upper-caste and upper-class marriage-worthy women as the sole custodians of Indian culture. Secondly, it views classical dance as an effective tool to harvest a breed of women who are desirable for marriage and the rearing of children.
The Indian classical dances are not inclusive spaces. Much as it plays out in real life, in Bollywood too the space is imagined as casteist, classist and deeply gendered. It is designed as a form that invests only in a few who command the authority of being a bona fide 'Indian' Indian.
Still looking for a man who performs classical dance to impress a woman in Bollywood? Hrithik Roshan is the closest I came to, as he performs a stylised Bharatanatyam step to 'Vande Mataram' (in the UK that too) in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). He performed many dances for Kareena Kapoor's Poo, but didn’t mention Bharatanatyam again. Coincidence? I think not.
Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge