The Dancing Divas
Music and dance have been intrinsic parts of Indian movies ever since its advent in 1913, gaining in import once talkie came into being a decade later when lyrics or songs too got incorporated as an important ingredient in the very narrative. And it has continued to do so from the black and white of the 1930s to mid-1960s when films began to be made in Techni-Geva-Eastman colours. But despite a plethora of songs and dances in Hindi films, and the heroines and vamps continued to entice heroes, villains and viewers there hardly were many actresses who had been trained dancers. The situation hasn’t radically changed since then, though almost every era had at least one or more, and their number can literally be counted on finger tips.
Going back in time, Vyjanthimala (actually an import from South Indian cinema) and well-versed with the nuances of Bharatnatyam was probably the first heroine who came to be known as ‘twinkle toes’, though she herself maintained that she was “born with dancing toes” and who mesmerized the audience with her facile footedness way back in 1954 with Nagin, especially in the song number, Man dole, mere tan dole. She later not only became the highest paid female actor but also paved the way for the entry of leading ladies from the South of India. Someone has rightly observed that seeing her dancing “is like watching a caged bird released for the first time darting about nervously and ecstatic in flight”. Some of her other memorable films and song-dance numbers would include), Devdas (55), Naya Daur (56- Udey jab jab zulfe teri ), Madhumati (58—Chadh gayo paapi bichhua), Gunga Jumna (61—Dhondo dhondo re sajna mere kaan ka bala), Sangam (64—Mein ka karo Ram mujhe Buddha mil gaya), Amrapali (66—Jao re jogi tum jao re) and Jewel Thief (67—Hothon pe aisi baat ).
Sandhya Shantaram was another skillful dancer who limited herself to performing only in her legendary husband, V Shantaram’s memorable films like Jhank Jhank Pyal Baje (55), Do Ankhen Barah Haath (58), Navrang (59), Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli (71). The next to arrive centre-stage and dominated the scene was another Bharatnatyam exponent, Waheeda Rehman though her dancing skills came to be exploited much later. In that sense her most memorable performance was in Guide (65). The next in line would, probably be the forgotten Gujju girl who instantly filled the gap and held the stage, between 59 and 73 as the next dancing diva Asha Parekh, amongst the highest paid female stars of her generation.
Hema Malini, also dubbed ‘Dream Girl’ can rightfully claim to be the worthy inheritor of Vyjantimala’s mantle yet another South Indian import though she spent all her growing years in Delhi who has dominated the scene for, perhaps, the longest time. Her dancing skills were first exploited in Johny Mera Naam, only her second film (1970). The next, who really ruled the roost and came to be eventually regarded as the “first female superstar of Hindi cinema”, held the top position for almost a decade, was Sridevi who excelled both in Indian classical and western dance, though unlike some of her other contemporaries had never been a trained dancer. Nagina (86—Mein teri dushman tu dushman hai mera), Mr India (87—Kahte hai mujh ko hawa hawai ), Chandni—Mere hathon mein nau nau chudiyan, Chaalbaaz—Na jane kahan se aai hai (89), Lamhe (91—Chudiyan khanak gayee), Khuda Gawah (92—Tu mujhe kabool ) are some of the successful movies that drew substantially for her dancing performances.
Two other important female actors of the same period who excelled in both histrionics and dancing were Meenakshi Sheshadri and Jayaprada, the former, who like Hema Malini grew up and studied in Delhi, had training in four different forms : Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak and Odissi some of which got showcased in films like Damini Bin Sajan jhoola jhuloo. Making an insignificant debut opposite Manoj Kumar’s brother in Painter Babu, she went on to becoming a star in 70 films during the next 13 years in most of which she at least one song-and-dance number opposite stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and others, the path-breaking being Subhash Ghai’s Hero (83), enjoying leading position next to Sridevi.
It was not her beauty, but a trailer of her dancing skills that earned Jayaprada stellar roles not only in Southern cinema but also in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali films. Unfortunately, despite being a bundle of talent she failed to encash opportunities that came her way, she also seemed not ambitious enough to create a place for herself when rivals Sridevi and Meenakshi Sheshadri were creating a place for themselves. Her song Dafali Wale dafali baja from Sargam was a huge hit in late 70’s. It was left to the Mumbite, Madhuri Dixit a trained Kathak dancer who once found stardom soon after her debut in the low budget Abode (84) and despite successive failures persisted for the next four years until Tezaab (88), and then went on to become the first choice of film-makers unt il she quit after marriage and Devdas (2002). Although she tried a comeback with Aaja Nachle (07), a disaster, she continues to be in demand, but waiting for the right breakthrough on her own terms.
Amongst others not too long ago there were Urmila Matondkar, an untrained but facile-footed and Rani Mukherjee, a trained Odissi dancer who failed to sustain their careers despite talent, presumably for reasons of the heart, though the latter’s height was another factor that went against her. If the former excelled in song-and-dance numbers like Chamma Chamma, and films like Kambakht Ishq, Rangeela, Mukherjee had few opportunities coming her way although she was a delight to watch perform the Punjabi bhangra in Dil Bole Haddipa. The last of the dancing diva title holders will, probably, be Aishwarya Rai Bachchan often dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world’ though without any formal training has shown great talent in dancing, the first of which was probably Nimbuda… in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam though later some others like Dola re dola (Devdas, 02) and Kajrare kajrare tere kale kale naina (Bunty aur Babli, 05) were no less in any way
And last, but surely not least, the most memorable of them all, though not as a leading lady but the most facile-footed, also nick-named ‘rubber doll’ or ‘boneless’ who outdid them all in terms of career graph has been the inimitable Helen who appeared in countless films as a cabaret dancer and also the original ‘item girl’. It is difficult to count the number of her ‘performance’ films. And to regard, as many critics do, her Piya tu ab toh aaja from Caravan amongst best cabaret numbers in Hindi films is to undermine her role.
By Suresh Kohli