Dancing with herself

Sthira Bhattacharya thinks about why two dance sequences from Indian cinema of the 90s have stayed with her.

10 min read

A few months ago, I was as usual rummaging for peppy Bollywood and Tamil music on YouTube, to steer me through the final weeks of the semester. And so it happened that I got hooked to two very different kinds of dance sequences from the 90s: Yayi Re Yayi Re from Rangeela (1995) and Thee Thee from Thiruda Thiruda (1993). It’s often puzzled me that I feel so tenderly towards these dances, and especially towards the women in them. After all, in movies of the 90s, women’s bodies and dance moves were mostly moulded to please men’s eyes—both on screen and among filmgoers. Or at least to reward anyone whose gaze was founded on cisheteropatriarchal norms of what counted as beauty and sexiness. Then what was it about the choreography that allowed me some space to make these dances my own? What follows are some of my uncertain thoughts on this, mostly about Yayi Re Yayi Re, but also touching upon Thee Thee. Do visit or revisit the dance sequences as you read!

Living in Jharkhand and then Delhi, I’d caught snatches of Yayi Re Yayi Re from television channels and audio cassettes over the years. But I’d never really dwelt on the film scene. Back in the nineties, we were a self-conscious Bangali family living in Dhanbad (part of Jharkhand now). Both my parents took joy in listening to a wide array of music. I remember the black Philips cassette player in our home. Perched up high on a wooden shelf right in the middle of the house, it was within easy hearing of Ma in the kitchen. On holiday mornings, the house would always be afloat with music—current Bangla singer-songwriters, old Bangla/Hindi film songs, rabindrasangeet, Bollywood, and later, Bangla bands, some American country music… We nearly wore out the ribbons in Rahman’s Hindi cassettes with our devotion!

Yet the films themselves, and more severely, their song-and-dance sequences often stayed out of reach. They were deemed too vulgar, or at least extraordinarily shallow, for the ‘upper’ caste, ‘middle class’ Bangali milieu my parents inhabited. Add to that the lessons in Bharatnatyam I took since childhood, and my reverence for its techniques and aesthetics, and the net result was a near-complete absence of Bollywood dance from both my teenage experiences and aspirations.

The late entry of 90s Bollywood in my life is probably one of the reasons the Rangeela visuals left me so enamoured. True, I had started following contemporary Bollywood only since my university days in Delhi, but even with my scant exposure, the settings and choreography of this song seemed to stick out. As did the moody charm of Urmila Matondkar. There’s something freeing about watching the everydayness of Bombay play backdrop to Mili’s swinging body.

The music, of course, leads you on—especially in the first third of the song. That bassline with its hum of anticipation, the synthesizer slowly climbing in pitch, a quick hand clap and a crash of thunder, just in time for us to see Urmila stretching her arms to strike that first, languorous pose—an angrayi, you might call it.

[In Hindi, angrayi lena is to spread out your arms (and maybe yawn!) and stretch, usually right after waking up from sleep.]

It’s almost as though she’s warming up… to herself.

And then finally, the action we’ve been waiting for, which somehow manages to be both denouement and beginning. That simple initial step with the hips swung heavily back—first one then the other, elbows pulling sharp arcs through the air. Out in the open street, the energy is infectious.

And soon, among high-rises, railway tracks, playgrounds, construction sites. There amidst the black-and-white salarymen, all dangling ties and pleated pants, is Mili. It’s Mili again, swinging shovels and rocking her hips with construction workers. Or standing in the middle of the railway tracks with steel pipes and girders splayed around her. Through all these frames pervades a publicness that Urmila confidently claims as her own. This isn’t the usual powdery snow or glossy foreign location, or even some unmarked dark rainy evening that is playing host to the actress’s thumkas. Yet, with these other, more romanticized spaces of 90s Bollywood dance, Yayi Re Yayi Re shares an important theme: it is an expression of an intense fantasy, an escape from the real. Perhaps what’s unique is that this fantasy isn’t a romantic one. The film opens with this song and neither on-screen nor in the audience’s imagination is Mili yet associated with any man (romantically or otherwise). In fact, it works surprisingly well as a stand-alone sequence… A young woman dreams out loud of fame and stardom:

Itne chehron mein
Amidst this sea of faces

Apne chehre ki pehchan to ho
My own face should be known!

Bade bade naamon mein
Among these big, famous names

Apna bhi naam-o-nishaan to ho
My name should find a place too!

As she tips her head back and stands tall at apne chehre, the resolve on her pursed lips says it all.

The scenes on the railway tracks and platforms are probably my favorite ones in the song! Every time I watch her dance, aside from Mili’s own dreams of stardom, I feel a more submerged kind of dream beckon at me, just from the way the scenes are composed. After all, the claims to publicness I sense in the dance hardly go unchallenged. Two heavily caricatured men at the beginning of the sequence duly appear on screen, complete with scars, bandana and semi-lecherous grins. The deserted stretches of railway platforms by themselves don’t seem especially welcoming either. I think part of the fantasy I re-live when I watch Mili is this nearly make-believe scenario of a lone woman effortlessly disarming such threats. Mili’s dance reins in dubious characters and spaces to her own rhythm. Their character and purpose seem to change irrevocably. At the railway station, as the raised arms of the dancing youths mimic the flight of birds, they seem to both visually echo and put in relief the grim Y-shaped beams stacked behind them.

Taking wing on a railway platform

Urmila’s black dress gently foregrounds her, against the gloomy roof and arches of grey. Her good humoured yet confident presence seems to rub off on the forbidding largeness of the railway station. In turn, because of low-angle shots, she herself seems to tower above us!

Clearly, Mili can’t do without ordinary Bombaiwallas to realize her dream of popularity. The key unit here is not the hero-heroine dyad; it’s the collective. The choreography goes on to embody this need, or perhaps this ideal. In scene after scene, Mili’s solo steps catch on among the bystanders on the streets. The borders between her and the crowd always seemed fuzzy to me. But only recently I noticed how the costumes play a subtle role in this. From Mili’s black-and-white hiphop outfit to her bright yellow t-shirt and blue denim shorts—her looks are casually mirrored by strangers in the dancing crowds.

Ripple effect

The overlaps might be small: a dressing choice here, a color scheme there. But what I find precious is that Mili’s ripple effect envelops people who don’t at all fit the stereotype of the ‘young feisty woman’. A street performer, or little children piggybacking on jawans for fun. There’s something enviable about how her moods and rhythms flow so easily across gender and age. Besides, because of the preponderance of break dance and hip hop styles in the choreography, Mili’s steps showcase athleticism and vigor, perhaps more than any conventionally imagined femininity. Her moves aren’t tailored to sexually objectifying her body. If we think of the other dances in the film—especially Tanha Tanha and Hai Rama—this seemed to me quite remarkable. In Yayi Re Yayi Re, the identical dance moves of Mili and the crowds constantly links her with the youth, soldiers, and little children. The scenes stirred in me an old, familiar longing to move through public spaces without being pinned to my youth and womanhood—or at least to what people think being a young woman is about. Without the gazes of strangers reminding me I’m only allowed to be out at certain times, in certain neighbourhoods, wearing certain expressions… I have always longed to just be, in public. Maybe like Mili.

My other recent obsession has been a dance that’s a far cry from the things that made Yayi Re Yayi Re special. Unlike Mili, it wasn’t easy to identify with Heera Rajagopal’s character of Rasathi in Thee Thee.

For one, the song unfolds as part of a romantic fantasy spun by Azhagu, one of the male leads. Rasathi neither knows nor shares his ardour. But following commercial cinema’s well-worn formula, the dance that gives voice to Azhagu’s love conjures an equally impassioned Rasathi out of thin air. The camera zooms in on her body a few times, mimicking the gaze of the desiring man. It frames her breasts and swinging hips within the familiar tropes of feminine sexual allure. Yet, despite this alienating framework, the dance as a whole left me quite transfixed. Perhaps because choices in both cinematography and choreography sometimes shift it away from a sexually objectifying lens.

As I stayed with the scenes from Thee Thee, I was struck by just how stylized many of Rasathi’s and Azhagu’s movements were. That is to say, at several moments in the dance, the male and female bodies seem non-realist in their depiction. They don’t quite appear before us as mere physical bodies. This stylization is done in several ways: the camera itself jerks and spins, sending Rasathi whirling before our eyes. The portions sung by Noel James and Rahman are also fast and fitful, with sudden jumps in pitch. I really like how these external choices create such a feverish atmosphere that the actors themselves don’t need to render physical desire literally. Their movements can suggest passion without necessarily embodying it. The dance steps share the fitful nature of the music and the camera. The break dance and free styles match the jump cuts and abrupt changes in the music’s pace. But often, there’s nothing inherently sexual in how Rasathi and Azhagu move together. Their steps seem to carry more of a martial—rather than a romantic—flavour.

The stylization also works through some remarkable shots that bring classical mudras tantalizingly close to bare skin. Palms move swiftly through the frames, shaping creepers, flowers, flutes. My favorite is the shot of Rasathi slowly blooming a flower along Azhagu’s bare back, as water trickles down his skin.

Azhagu plays a flute along Rasathi’s arm
Flowers on a drenched back

Yet this intensity of passion is also underlaid with something slower. Once again, rather than relying solely on shots that slice up the woman’s body, the setting, lighting, music, camera are allowed to speak for themselves. The rippling waters of the pond and the play of light and shadow are central to how the scenes are composed. The water laps against the dancers. Lights flicker on their faces, bodies. These gradual motions blend with Caroline’s vocals to create a dreaminess about the dance. The song’s refrain is filled with abstract, immersive images:

Thee! Thee! Thiththikkum thee
Fire! Fire! Fire that’s sweet

Theenda theenda chivakkum
Reddens with every touch

Thaen! Thaen! Kodhikkum thaen
Honey! Honey! Honey that’s boiling

Thegamengum minukkum
Shines all over the body

Faces in water and light

Long shots are also interspersed with high contrast close-ups. Eyes, arms, and fingers get pressed together, glowing dimly by firelight.

I think these close-ups do an exquisite job of depicting something we are quite unused to seeing in film dances: a mutually aware, tender kind of intimacy.

The formal choices made to stylize the body, the imaginative blend of classical, martial and break dance styles seem to invent a whole new language for desire. How I wish Thiruda Thiruda’s plot had made room for the kind of mutuality that these few minutes of touch and movement seem to promise.

As a movie buff and dance-lover, I have partly made peace with feeling a jab of guilt every time I enjoy watching an Urmila or a Malaika dance. I worry I’m partaking of that exact same male gaze that I know those hip moves and that baring of skin are chosen for. But then again, in my daily life, I often gaze at and appreciate the embodied beauty of fellow women—friends and strangers alike. And I have wondered if I can’t possibly stay that person and watch these dances…a bit differently? I think the two dances I have described here offered me some space to do just that. To gaze at a woman on screen, but to also inch towards an abstract shape of mutual passion. To gaze at a woman, yes, but also to want to be her.

Stills from films: Reproduction

Thank you to the friends who got me excited about this and helped me think it through.

About the author

Sthira is a student of literature and history. She enjoys reading and writing descriptive prose, and some poetry. Studying far away from home, in Chicago, South Indian and Hindi films have become her medicine for homesickness. You can find her on Twitter, Blogger or write to her at sthira.emmalover@gmail.com. This is her first time writing about films or dance, and she’d love to get feedback, or talk some more.

Featured image by Ujjwala Bassi

About the artist

Ujjwala Bassi is a 24 year old self-taught Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Animator based in Delhi, India. She has been sketching since childhood, and turned her hobby into her profession, freelancing full time. She is inspired by her daily experiences and observations. She strives for improvement and consistency by taking up various design challenges apart from client work. You can look at more of her art here.

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