Sunday, May 3, 2015

Film Classical Dances of Manju Warrier (She's Back!)

Manju Warrier (official website)
Manju Warrier is back and dancing in films again with a fantastic Kuchipudi-based dance in the Malayalam film Ennum Eppozhum released in March! I am beyond delighted. Some time ago I had remarked that Manju Warrier and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy were the only two impressive female classical dancers in recent Indian cinema. But Manju's problem was that she only danced in a few Malayalam films in the short years she was in the film industry and then abruptly left in 2000 when she married the actor Dileep. Difficulty awaited anyone who attempted to track down her film dances online which made Manju a neglected subject on this blog.

When Ragothaman of the Bharathanatyam and the Worldwide Web blog notified me of his discovery of Manju's performance in Ennum Eppozhum, I thought it would be the perfect time to dust off my long-coming post and take advantage of the increase in Malayalam films available online.

Manju's film classical dances are always a large notch above the rest because her training clearly shows through no matter how "filmi" and hybridized the choreography, presentation, or editing style. Her body geometry and precise movements are a pleasure to watch. Comparing her to the mature Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, Manju's only problem is that in her early film dances as a teenager she showed a lack of polish particularly in her abhinaya which consisted almost entirely of a plastered and unwavering smile and also in some of her lines which occasionally weren't quite perfect.

Trained in her youth in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam (studying at the same institution as fellow film dancer Vineeth) as well as in Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam, Manju studied Kuchipudi more seriously in recent years under Geetha Padmakumar (Vempati Chinna Satyam's style) and performed her debut arangetram in 2012 after not having danced in public for 14 years. She's back!

Manju's Classical Film Dances

Ennum Eppozhum (2015, Malayalam) - "Dhithiki Dhithiki Thai" - After featuring Manju in a dance competition in his 1996 film Thooval Kottaram, director Sathyan Anthikad brings her back for her film dance comeback—a solo Kuchipudi stage number in his film Ennum Eppozhum. While it leans much more classical than most Indian cinema dances, it still has that filmi touch with the copious editing cuts, out-of-place isolated hand gesture closeups, and bits of prettified quick-choreography. But the number makes up for its shortcomings with lovely lighting/backlighting and Manju's seemingly clean and self-assured lines in some of the adagulu inspirations. Compared to her earlier films, Manju seems to be an entirely different dancer here. She actually has more than one facial expression, and her movements are much more relaxed and graceful. Some media articles and reviews misidentify the dance form as Bharatanatyam, but it's definitely Kuchipudi notably in the lively springiness, occasional mouthing of the words, and the classic Kuchipudi arm movements at :27 and :41 among others.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mystery Indian Dancers in Seven Wonders of the World (1956, US)

When fellow Indian dance sleuth Ragothaman translated sections of Shankar Venkatraman's Tamil book Thiraiulagil Isai Kalaignargal (Musicians in Cinema), I was surprised to read a number of little-known references to film and film dance appearances of Indian dancers and musicians. I previously blogged about one—Kuchipudi dancer Sobha Naidu dancing in Abhimanavanthulu (1973, Telugu)—but the few others mentions seemed to have no available footage today, like Bangalore Nagarathnammal acting in Krishna Leela (1947, Kannada) and K. Bhanumathi acting (and possibly more?) in Jalaja/Natya Magimai (1938, Tamil).

Venkatraman's book also described multiple films that the now-veteran dancer Padma Subrahmanyam had danced in: the Kannada movie Sri Rathna (likely the 1955 Kannada/Tamil film), the Tamil Nadu documentary Alaiyangalum Thiruvizhakkalum (Temples and their Festivals) in which "she danced for the song 'Kalaiyadha Kalai Engal Kalaiye' in front of the temple deities," and the American movie Seven Wonders of the World in which she "danced a 'snake dance'."

I felt excited by the last discovery! Surely Seven Wonders of the World, a 1956 American film, would be relatively easy to find, and it sounded like Padma might have done a solo dance! But a bit of research led to the discovery that the film was made using Cinerama technology, a widescreen format somewhat like today's IMAX that died out in the 1970s. Cinerama films were "impossible to see at all, in any form, for nearly half a century" because they were never broadcast on TV or released for home viewing (DVDTalk).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "Indian" Dances in Kali Yug (1963, Italy/France/Germany)

Back in 2011 when I researched for my post series on Indian dances in Western films about India, I found some images from the 1963 Italian film Kali Yug that seemed to depict India and feature an "Indian" dance that looked like it would fit in nicely with the orientalist dances in part three of the series. 
Kali Yug film posters
At that time, I wasn't able to find any clips online or copies of the film for sale and it seemed quite rare. Fast forward three years later and a Google search on a lark reveals the film and its sequel (the German dubs, Kali Yug Die Gottin Der Rache and Aufruhr in Indien) are available at Dailymotion!

According to the Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema, Kali Yug was one of "two adventure fantasies set in India" directed by Mario Camerini, "one of the foremost directors of Italian cinema in the interwar years." The full name of the film was Kali Yug, La Dea Della Vendetta (Vengeance of Kali), and its sequel released in the same year was Mistero del Tempio Indiano (Mystery of an Indian Temple). While the credits of the films describe them as Italian-French-German coproductions, the films seem to have been shot in Italian and then dubbed into German (Kali Yug Die Gottin Der Rache/Aufruhr in Indien) and French (Kali-Yug Deesse de al Vengeance/Le Mystere Du Temple Hindou) as well as other European languages judging by the titles found online (Kali-Yug Les Revoltes de/de Opstandelingen Van, Kali-Jug Boginja Osvete, etc.)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rabindra Nritya/Tagore Dances in Bengali Films

In my efforts over the past year to look beyond my focus on South Indian cinema dance to see what other regional cinemas of India have to offer, my research on Odissi, Manipuri, and Sattriya film dances led me eastward to the cinemas of Odisha in East India and Manipur and Assam in Northeast India. But what about the cinema of Bengal situated directly in between those states and also one of India's major film-making centers since the craft began? (Note: I am focusing on Indian Bengali films produced in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and the Indian state of West Bengal—not those produced in what was East Bengal and East Pakistan near/after partition/independence and now is Bangladesh).

Other regional Indian classical dance forms had been depicted in a few Bengali films with an authentic earnestness and execution. For example, the best Kathak nritta in a non-Mujra setting in Indian cinema can be found in Jalsaghar (1958), Khudito Pashan (1960), and Basanta Bahar (1957); Odissi dance was skillfully depicted in Nirjana Saikate (1963) and Yugant (1995); and the infamous Anjana Banerjee performed decent Bharatanatyam in Chhandaneer (1989). That's not to say that examples of bad faux-classical dance are not found in Bengali cinema. There are plenty such as Abhiman (1986), Jamalay Jibanta Manush (1958), and some faux-Manipuri dances—but when good dance is showcased in Bengali films, it is really good. And there are certainly folk dance forms of the region most notably Chhau that have also been showcased in a few Bengali films.

Jalsaghar (1958)
The popularity of Kathak and Odissi dance depictions in Bengali films makes historical sense. Kathak dancer and scholar Pallabi Chakravorty [3] describes how female court dancers in north and east India during British rule became "popularly known as nautch dancers" but also "as tawaifs in the royal courts of north India and baijis or nautch dancers in nineteenth-century Bengal." As kingdoms continued to decline, in the late nineteenth-century Calcutta "became the prime destination for displaced dancers and musicians from the north, who found new sources of patronage among the Bengali elite" particularly in the "music rooms of the Bengali zamindars (landlords)." Ah, now I understand the background of Roshan Kumari's thrilling Kathak dance in Jalsaghar ("The Music Room," 1958)! The appearance of Odissi dance in Bengali films is not surprising as well. Certainly Odisha is close to Bengal and shares many cultural similarities, but as scholar Nandini Sikand has shown, there is a history of women with Bengali backgrounds becoming prominent Odissi dancers such as Ritha Devi, Indrani Rahman (married into a Kolkata family), and recently Sharmila Biswas [13].

So while the depiction of Kathak and Odissi in Bengali films had a uniquely Bengali precedent, I continued to wonder...was there a uniquely-Bengali dance depicted in Bengali films? For some time I assumed there simply was not because from my limited experience Bengali films seemed to be mostly "serious" and "artsy." This perception appears to be accurate especially for pre-1980s films. Historian Sharmistha Gooptu has shown that long before Satyajit Ray, Calcutta productions were "distinguished through their association with Bengali literary and avant-garde cultures" and were deliberately made and seen as noncommercial art for the Bengali audience which had different tastes than the all-India market and demanded films with quality storylines and acting [5]. Cinematic dance depictions were not well received in Bengal. Silent/early Bengali films like Andhare Alo, Pati Bhakti, Bilwamangal, and Tara the Dancer which had courtesan/nautch characters were criticized for "depicting the life of prostitutes" [5]. Sharmistha reveals a fascinating nugget of information—that director Binay Bandopadhyay (Banerjee) "brought the song and dance film" to Bengali cinema, but he lamented his receiving "only abuses and criticism" by critics who upheld the virtues of the "refinement and decency" of Bengali films as opposed to the "cheap and commercial" focus of the Hindi cinema of Bombay [5]. I wish I could track down the films he was associated with, but I've not had success finding information about him.