Dancing into oblivion

Shifting Spotlight

Dancing into oblivion

Trained moves: Shiamak Davar redefined the term ‘extras’ by bringing in fit, contemporary dancers on Bollywood sets.

After doing odd production chores at Rajkamal Studios for two years, Bulbul auditioned at the Cine Dancers Association. On proving his dancing prowess and by paying Rs 56, a princely sum in 1971, he earned himself a Dancers ID Card, which every background dancer in Bollywood must compulsorily hold, even to this day. 

Bulbul has been a background dancer for close to 40 years now and continues to work. His first film was the iconic director V Shantaram’s Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli. In recent times, amongst other films, Bulbul has shaken a leg for Farah Khan in Om Shanti Om. “Most choreographers know me,” he says “they say ‘we want Bulbul to dance for us’.”

Association of dancers

For over 50 years now, the Cine Dancers Association has been providing background dancers like Bulbul to Bollywood. Heavily unionized, it is slow to accept newcomers and slower to accept change. Until a few years ago, Bollywood background dancers were criticised for their out-of-shape bodies, lack of visual appeal and ill-fitting, gaudy costumes. 

The late 90s set higher standards, producers wanted more bang for their buck, directors wanted every bit of the frame to look as gorgeous as the chiseled star in the centre and audiences had had enough of laughing at ‘the fat dancer at the back.’ “Having trained dancers with fit bodies created a big buzz back then,” says Shiamak Davar, who wrangled in dancers from his own troupe for Dil To Pagal Hai.

Modern jazz style choreography, executed by fittingly gorgeous dancers, earned him the President’s National Award. Using dancers from the outside, usually means shelling out a compensation fee to the Association, which the Chopras were happy to do if it meant great results. “Yash Uncle (Yash Chopra) and Adi (Aditya Chopra) trusted me wholeheartedly and that was very encouraging,” he adds. 

Over the next few years, most A-list producers followed their example, using young innovative dance directors and outside dancers, which has led to a marked difference in the quality of Bollywood moves and those performing them. In fact, Shiamak’s dancers are so good, that many of them go on to bag full-fledged roles in films. Shahid Kapoor, for instance, was a background dancer in films like Taal, choreographed by his guru. Shiamak adds, “Bollywood dance has now come of age. With dancers like Hrithik and Shahid, the background dancers need to do their best. A lot of thought goes into sets and costumes as well.” 

As the Dancers Association continues to meander in the new era, independent dance coordinators have taken over, profiting from, as they put it, the Association’s ineptitude. “The Association has done nothing to keep up with the changing times and meet producers’ demands,” says one such coordinator, Hemanshu Dadbhawala.

Hemanshu has sourced professional dancers for many films over the last few years, including the Hrithik-starrer Kites, which needed a large number of foreign dancers; they were roped in from Russia and the UK. Currently, he’s working with dancers from South Africa for Rohan Sippy’s upcoming Dum Maro Dum, starring Abhishek Bacchan and Bipasha Basu.

“There’s a lot of dadagiri by the Association,” he says, “And the quality of dancers in the 90s had hit rock bottom because they used to take on just about anybody.”  Lost in the tussle between a progressive Bollywood and a resistant Association are the Association members – the dancers. Their professional circumstances were always precarious, because, as many of them tell us, once you have the Dancer’s Card, a subservient relationship with those in charge is an important factor in getting steady work. 

“Dancers suck up all the time, buy little gifts, say nice things to the bosses and keep them happy,” says Saajid, 37, who has been a background dancer for 15 years. “I can’t do all that.” And he seems to be facing the consequences; Saajid has been out of work for three months. He’s almost ready to quit the career he inherited from his father, who was also a background dancer for some 40 years, having left his home in Bangalore to pursue a glamorous life in the movies, in Bombay.  He started off with the Manoj Kumar and Nanda-starring hit thriller Gumnaam. 

“It’s a horrible job and a hopeless field to be in,” Saajid says bitterly. “One day you have work and the next day, you have no idea what’s going to happen. The worst part is the exploitation, everybody from the dance master to the coordinators give you a hard time.”

Foreign fixation

It’s a dog-eat-dog dancers world, where those who have found ways to survive, do so. Sheila Prasad has also been a background dancer for thirty five years — her first film was the Raj Kapoor-starrer Shree 420 and one of her last was the Salman-Shahrukh rebirth epic, Karan Arjun. While she shares fond memories from her career and the special moments she shared with the 60s star Sadhana, when asked if she knows what happens to dancers who quit the industry, she says, “I haven’t paid attention to people like that.” 

Currently, as evident in almost every new Bollywod dance number, Caucasian dancers are all the rage. They are usually sourced from the UK, Australia and Russia. A one month’s schedule, including four days of leave, will fetch them anywhere from Rs 50,000 to Rs 80,000, depending on, as Hemanshu says, “which country they’re from.” In comparison, the local Association dancers are paid from Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 per shift.
Nobody will easily admit on-record to using or sourcing non-association Indian dancers, as this is ‘officially’ not allowed. Foreign dancers are justified as part of the foreign location the movie might be based in, and still the Association gets part of the dancers’ fee as ‘welfare compensation’. 

Zahid Sheikh, the President of the Cine Dancers Association, claims to have stringent selection criteria for dancers. When asked about the efforts taken to meet changing demands of the industry, he says he is busy walking a tightrope, trying to keep his dancers happy, appeasing the rebels in the Association and chasing producers who don’t pay on time. “I am so stressed out, I had to take up Art of Living, meditate and do yoga everyday,” he says.

For many youngsters from Mumbai’s poorer neighbourhoods, with no qualifications or connections to improve their lives, a career as a background dancer in Bollywood is an aspiration. And a couple of grand every shift, is an attractive financial proposition, for which they’re willing to shell out a sum, many times more than the few hundred rupees to be paid for a membership. A few Cine Dancers Association members have alleged that the Association has been giving out Membership Cards to non-dancers for bribes of as much as Rs 75,000. 

Even minus the complaints, the Association clearly needs a revamp. Despite having been around for more than half-a-century, it offers its members no particular benefits. There are no retirement plans or insurance policies in place. And from all we hear, no transparency in its selection process. Quite obviously, filmmakers are unhappy with the quality of dancers on offer.

Either way, the industry has moved forward. The curtains have dropped on the potbellied dancer with tacky costumes, ringing in the next show – performance by the trained, fit and good-looking Bollywood background dancer. 

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