Asian Music and Dance

Farah Khan 

Self-taught, gutsy, ‘can-do’ Khan learnt her craft from Hollywood musicals and Michael Jackson videos. In a frank interview with Vipul Bhatti, Farah Khan shares her thoughts on  Bollywood’s enduring appeal.

Anything goes. A term Indian choreographer and director Farah Khan describes for the making of Bollywood dance. Since its release last year, Khan’s film ‘Om Shanti Om’ has become one of the highest-grossing Hindi films, entering various Bollywood box-office record lists in India. 

Only her second film after her directorial debut ‘Main Hoon Na’ (‘I am Here’) in 2004, but her choreographic contribution to Indian cinema, in over 100 films began in the early 1990s with the very successful ‘Jo Jeeta Who Sikandar’ (‘He who wins is the conqueror’) – the song Pehla Nasha (‘First Drink’) became more popular than the film, and was the first Indian song to be shot entirely in slow-motion, a trend that was subsequently picked up by other films. She has also choreographed for Hollywood films ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’.

With no formal dance training, hugely inspired by Hollywood’s golden age of musicals and dancers, mostly Gene Kelly, and the king of pop, Michael Jackson, Khan’s own choreography has successfully proved that anything can go and still have the characteristics that fit in the genre of Bollywood dance. According to her, there is no rule, no real form that defines ‘Bollywood dance’. Khan added: “You can mix-match classical with hip-hop. You can do folk dance with jazz. It’s an amalgamation of various forms of dance, and when you put all of this together, you get this wild, energetic, celebration kind of dance.”

“…whether it’s the birth of a child or a funeral, a wedding …  there will always be music”

With dance and music holding a prominent place in rituals and celebrations a ready-made occasion is created for Bollywood scripts to call for a dance. Khan states: “Because Indians love music, whether it’s the birth of a child or at a funeral, a wedding … whatever the occasion for social interaction there will always be music,” she added.

“We have different types of music. If you hear ‘Bollywood music’ there will be semi-classical, to hip-hop, to rap, anything goes. And it all mixes together in a nice Indian way to separate it from world music. 

 The same with our dances, I think it’s the way of expression. It’s only Indian movies that have song and dance. In America or world cinema, a certain movie will have songs and dance and will be termed a musical. All our movies are musicals. In fact, when we don’t have song and dance it’s a ‘song-less’ movie.” 

 The Hollywood musical aspect of showing detail combined with the influence of Indian ‘old’ cinema, films such as ‘Janak Janak Payal Baaje’ and ‘Jewel Thief’, from illustrious directors V. Shantaram and Vijay Anand, respectively, is a common feature in Khan’s songs and movies. Khan told Pulse that she did not believe in the ‘MTV cutting’ style of “chopping bits [movement] … I like to hold on to a shot, if someone is dancing I want to show it.”

For her, choreography is not just about the steps. Her dance vision takes into account the big picture, bringing everything together: the set, costume, camera movement, actors’ interaction – last of all, dance. Khan places great importance in knowing film-making techniques to strengthen a song’s on-screen effect, something “I find a bit lacking in today’s choreographers – they’re all dancers, not song directors.”

In October, Khan led a one-off in-depth master class ‘A Unique & Detailed Insider’s Perspective on Bollywood’ in London with the Mayfair Media Club, giving an insight into script development, producing and directing through to distribution, casting and choreography. 

In an evening event hosted by the Mayfair Media Club Khan said that Bollywood was making a global impact through dance and music, making it the only film industry to do so and continuing to be the largest by producing the most number of movies every year in both feature-length and shorts. Khan added, “Nowadays we have a lot of young people, new directors making niche films that are song-less – they’re fine too because they don’t require songs – that is a separate genre for us.” 

However, she also felt that there was a lack of originality when it came to dance, believing a wall had been hit with the MTV-style of choreography. Similarly, contestants on dance talent shows were no different in mimicking film items. Perhaps this is a manifestation of today’s cut-and-paste culture where precedence is placed on winning popular votes rather than running the risk of performing with unknown individuality.

Competition is rife in the $10bn Bollywood film industry. Commercial demands are placing greater pressure for more blockbusters to marvel its audiences everywhere with every release to give something new and different, better and unique.

“…we don’t find it cheesy and over-the-top.”

According to Khan, Bollywood is so unique in world cinema because “we don’t find it strange that people dance at the drop of a hat. When I was doing ‘Bollywood Dreams’ (for which she was nominated for a ‘Tony Award’ as ‘Best Choreographer’, alongside collaborator Anthony van Laast, in 2004) people would say ‘that is so cheesy’ … ‘this is so over-the-top’ … it works for us because we don’t find it cheesy and over-the-top.”

She is probably right, otherwise the absence of song and dance at births, weddings and funerals would be the norm. Life is a drama, with glamour and glitter, it is a farce to be sent up and magnified. With the day-to-day harsh realities of survival in three-quarters of the world, celluloid escapism is what we need. Here the ordinary is rejected for the extraordinary, reminding us that we are all dreamers, on and off-screen.

“This moon, is not the moon. It is a dream … and today I touched it,” actor Shah Rukh, Khan’s character in ‘Om Shanti Om,’ declares as the silver moonlight touches him, making dreams and reality inseparable.



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