Dance of Connections

Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow Anugyan Nag explores the connections between movie dances in Bollywood and Hollywood.

By Suparna Mukherji

September 2019

Dance of Connections

Anugyan Nag against the city skyline in New York City. Photograph courtesy Anugyan Nag

While Bollywood dance moves have become a familiar sight on U.S. television and cinema screens, Hollywood musicals are gaining popularity in India.

Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow Anugyan Nag looks at the negotiations of Bombay cinema with Hollywood musicals through the prism of dance practices in films. He studies dance, dancers and dance makers from the 1930’s to the present. His Fulbright-Nehru project at New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts’ cinema studies program explores the art form as a cultural and creative confluence between Bollywood and Hollywood cinemas. Nag is an assistant professor of film, media and cultural studies at A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

Excerpts from an interview.

Could you tell us a bit about your current research work?

Currently, I am working on the multifarious ways through which Bollywood song and dance are being used for a particular kind of self and gender expression on social media platforms. I am focusing on the mobile app TikTok.

What role do song-and-dance sequences play in cinema?

“Song-and-dance” in Indian cinema has multiple roles to play, and it’s one of our more distinctive forms of cinematic expression. While it is often used as an allegorical device to take forward the narrative and express what cannot be articulated through everyday vocabulary, it is also a spectacle, an effective form of pleasure and aspiration—transgressive and hugely emotional.

In your opinion, what are some of the major milestones in the evolution of dance in Bollywood?

The coming of sound technology followed by the playback technique, which became quintessential to Indian cinema, allowed for the camera to move more lucidly and the actor or actress to move freely because they were not singing with their own voice while performing. The next big milestone was the entry of a figure called the choreographer and, finally, with the expansion of technologies, we have special effects, graphics and visual effects—all of which have tremendously transformed the idiom of song-and-dance picturization.

What are some of the major similarities and dissimilarities you see between Bollywood and Hollywood film dances?

The foremost difference is that in Hollywood, song-and-dance is only visible in a very specific genre called the musical, while in India, it is part of the very fabric of cinematic expression. Song-and-dance is present in almost all the possible film genres we [Bollywood] have had so far. The other major difference is the playback technology, where we have the concept of a pre-recorded song by a singer and an actor on screen only lip-synchs the song, which is a strict no-no in Hollywood. The actors sing the songs in their own voice.

A similarity that both these film industries have is the mixing of various forms and aesthetics of dances, musical traditions and styles. They have all been mishmashed to form a hybrid, which in India, is called the Bollywood song or Bollywood dance. Bollywood dance has acquired a global status today as a recognized genre in American and British dance reality shows on TV, and has traveled far and wide to other nations as a form of dance style that more and more people are learning and teaching.

What are some of the key factors aiding the growing popularity of Bollywood dance in the United States, as well as that of Hollywood musicals in India?

Hollywood musicals have had a resonance in India, for the allure of the song-and-dance. While it is familiar to the Indian audience, it is also different for it is executed differently. Bollywood dance has a tremendous global presence. In the United States, the South Asian diaspora has definitely done the initial work of presenting it in the public sphere. Increasingly, the two industries are collaborating and co-producing. Thus the acknowledgement of the distinctive forms of Bollywood cinema song-and-dance. There is a rise in the visibility of Bollywood dances on American television and in the public sphere through flash mobs and through Hollywood and American pop celebrities performing Bollywood dances. Social media, which allows people to sometimes mimic or even parody Bollywood song-and-dance, is nevertheless popularizing it and enabling transnational circulation and consumption.

How was your experience of the Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellowship and what were some of the biggest takeaways from your time in the United States?

The experience was very fulfilling and stimulating, both intellectually and culturally. I was fortunate to be in New York. The city, my host university and my research supervisor, all of them were the best! I couldn’t have asked for more. The best takeaways were the experience that New York City offered—the libraries, the archives, the Broadway musicals and, last but not the least, the multicultural, global cosmopolitan culture of New York. I would want to go back again and do another research project sometime in the future. It is extremely inspiring to be on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship at such a fantastic university and city.

How have your experiences during the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship influenced your work in India?

It constantly reminds me of the many similarities and dissimilarities that we have in our countries around research, teaching, academic practices, scholarships and so on. The fellowship particularly opened up new opportunities to further my research arguments and to come up with some very interesting and exciting partnerships with academics and practitioners from the United States and other parts of the world. I am looking forward to actualizing some of those collaborations soon.


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