A crash course in Bollywood Dance

Aaah Bollywood. I love it. The drama, the action, the music and, of course, the dancing.

The leading ladies, delicately flicking their wrists and jangling their anklets, an inheritance from the courtesans and dancing girls who elevated their trade to an art form. In the background, a cast of hundreds sways together with a collective grace.

It was with this romantic view of Bollywood dance that I decide to join the workshops taking place last weekend. The organisers of Alchemy had set themselves the task of filming an entire Bollywood film in a week, and that meant a LOT of dancing.

I’ve watched enough films and have been known to bust some pretty snazzy moves at family weddings, so I was fairly confident that I’d got what it takes to add some pizazz to the movie’s grand finale.

An amazing choreographer was on hand – actress and dancer Shobna Gulati – who charmed us with her warm northern patter while managing to get us jumping, wiggling and twirling at her command.

We start off with a wiggly arm move, which Shobna described as the ‘many-armed goddess’. So far, so good, I think I’ve got this one pretty much sussed… I can’t help thinking about the ‘ugly sisters dance’ from East is East each time I do it though.

Team Bollywood Bitesized in a row

Many armed goddesses - the Bollywood Bitesized team all in a row.

The classic ‘thumka’ (saucy hip wiggle) comes next. It seemed relatively simple to master. Surely, it’s just a matter of hip up, hip down, suggestive eyebrow raise and come hither smile, as perfected by the likes of Madhuri Dixit. This, I’m convinced, is going to be easy-peasy.

Alas, not so.

It seems my hip has trouble moving independently of the rest of my body. So when it goes up so does the rest of my leg, while my upper body curves over in a most ungraceful manner, making it look as though I’m suffering from severe stomach cramps.

I also note that while Shobna’s hands arch elegantly, mine look as though they’re trying to help planes land. In fact, I seem to have spent my life unaware of just how big my hands are, so I have to thank Alchemy for drawing this to my attention.

Bollywood Bitesized Sadaf Ahmed

Big hands

Regardless, I soldier on, having been blessed with a healthy over-estimation of my own abilities. But when I attempt an elegant twirl and manage to nearly knock over an elderly (but remarkably spritely) lady in the next row, I start to suspect that perhaps Bollywood dancing doesn’t come naturally to me.

At this point I’m called away to man the Bollywood Bitesized stand, a great loss for the rest of the dance crew no doubt who cope stoically with my removal.

Shobna did an impressive job, there must have been over a hundred ‘dancers’ there, encapsulating the full diversity of London with all ages, ethnicities and nationalities present. She managed to get our motley crew into shape in an impressively short period of time. We were army ants, dutifully following our queen’s commands.

Later, as I availed myself (again) of the excellent food on offer in the taste of India food market, I watched the dance being filmed for the movie. It looked spectacular, and managed to condense everything that is Bollywood, The Southbank and London, into one five-minute explosion of pure razzle-dazzle.

I can’t wait to watch the film.

(The Alchemy Bollywood Blockbuster premiere will be at The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, at 4:30pm on Sunday 22 April)


From Bahawalpur to Bradford: South Asian weddings in the UK

Firstly, apologies for the delay in posting, I’ve been oop north in Bradford at my cousin’s wedding. These days, ‘Bradistan’ as it’s fondly (and not-so-fondly) known, has become a symbol of Britain’s struggle with multiculturalism, race and identity politics. I, however, am more interested in family politics. Specifically, those pertaining to three generations of my family – grandparents, aunties, uncles, grandaunties, granduncles, first cousins, second cousins, cousins three-times removed etc, all rammed into two four-bed semis during the year’s one freakishly cold and snowy week.

You might have watched Monsoon Wedding or perhaps Bend it Like Beckham and got some inkling of what Asian’s weddings are like. That’s not the half of it. Bombay or Birmingham, Maharashtra or Manchester, an Asian wedding is a sensory chappal, smacking you around the head with its heady sounds, smells and colours.

So here is a very condensed guide to Asian weddings:

1) People: Lots. There is NO SUCH THING as a ‘small, intimate affair’ when it comes to Asian weddings. Anything less than 300 guests is stingy. And numbers are easy to meet when they include extended family (many jetting in from overseas), friends and neighbours. At my wedding, mum also invited the guy who fitted our conservatory, because ‘he did such a good job, it would be rude not to.’

2) Time: Lots of it, a conservative Asian wedding lasts three days, most, a whole lot longer. On top of the main ceremonies, most people hold numerous ‘dholkis’ (which translates literally as ‘drum’) where friends and relatives hold parties in the run up to the main event. For my cousin’s wedding, we had the Nikah (Muslim marriage), Registration (official registry), Mehndi (Henna night), Shaadi (actual wedding reception, hosted by bride’s family) and Walima (post-wedding reception, hosted by groom’s family).

3) Henna: For the bride’s hands and feet, applied in intricate designs. Normally applied on the Mehndi night which is the closest thing we have to a ‘Hen night’. Traditionally women only, although these days more and more boys involved. Girls sing and dance and generally cause mayhem.

Bride on henna night

4) Sweets: Lots and lots of sticky ones to be consumed at every opportunity. Everyone has a favourite. Traditional wedding sweets include: Ladoo’s (gram flour, saffron flower, rice flour, cardamom, vast amounts of sugar), Gulab Jaman (milk solids deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup with rose or cardamom essence) or Jalebis, (wiggly deep-fried batter soaked in syrup). Deep-frying and sugar syrup feature heavily.

Sticky sweets & henna

5) Plump aunties: see point 4.

6) Kids: Again, lots. Noisy ones. Extremely cute, you will step on at least one during festivities.

Kids and fizzy drinks. Uh-oh...

7) Fizzy drinks: I don’t know if there’s some kind of Coca Cola gene present in Asian people but we love ‘em.

8) Singing: Traditionally to the dholki drum on the henna night. One girl plays the drum while the others clap and sing along. It can turn into a face-off, with women from the groom’s family taking turns against women from the bride’s family.

9) Dancing: As above, to anything from traditional Asian music, modern Bollywood to ahem, Beyonce. Normally executed with varying levels of success. Captured on video, to be laughed at later.

10) Smiling: And laughing. Unless you’re the bride, in which case it’s best to look sombre and slightly nervous. Traditionally, marriage was the point at which a woman left her family home to go and live with her husband and his family. Often, the marriage was (and still is) arranged so the usual form was for the bride to look demure and then have a little cry as she bade farewell to her family. This tradition continues today, with 87.5 per cent* of Asian brides crying when they leave the wedding venue.

11) Bride and Groom. Mandatory.

There’s a whole lot more, but I’m suffering from a post-wedding sugar ‘hangover’ and need to grab a jelabi so I’m off!

*Figure based on my own personal research of 32 UK-based weddings over a period of twenty years. Weddings were of family, friends and ‘people mum knows whose names I don’t remember.’

A beginner’s guide to Bollywood

Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry, churning out twice as many films a year as Hollywood and with a bigger audience too. Despite its global reach, it’s still alien to most folk and evokes images of dancing around tree-trunks, navel-gazing (literally), dodgy editing and even dodgier bad guys. But there’s a lot more to it. Modern Bollywood has high production values and budgets to rival Hollywood. But for me, the best of Bollywood lies in its Classics. The late 1940’s to 1960 were known as ‘The Golden Age’. Newly independent India was churning with creativity and it found its outlet in the country’s rapidly developing film industry. The exciting lives of the stars of this new world added spice to the lives of many ordinary people, who saw the big screen as an escape from the grind of day-to-day poverty.

Stars such as the phenomenal Dilip Kumar and handsome Raj Kapoor charmed with their raffish presence, and sirens like Madhubala and Vyjayanthimala stole hearts. Many great epics were born at this time. Barsaat (1949) set the tone with grand sets and dramatic cinematography and was a precursor to films such as the opulent Mughal-e-Azam (1960) which cost $3 million to make at a time when the average Bollywood film came in at under $200,000. At the same time, Bollywood developed an interest in bringing social realism to the masses with films such as Pyaasa (1957), made by the profoundly talented but tragic Guru Dutt and Footpath (1953) directed by Zia Sarhadi (my grand uncle!). Despite drawing great critical acclaim both in India and overseas, they were not box office successes. Indian audiences wanted escape, not reality.

Later on, the 60’s and 70’s also gave birth to some profound work – Aradhana (1969) documents the struggles of an unmarried mother – a taboo in India even these days. And blockbusters like Sholay (1975), managed to perfectly deliver the classic formula of great screenplay, lavish dance numbers, loveable good guys and one-dimensional villains – the staple of what came to be known as the ‘Masala Movie’.

Classic Bollywood was never about technical brilliance. The editing is done on a butchers block, most of them go on way too long and often the characterisation is clichéd and one-dimensional. What they lack in technical prowess though, they make up in sheer charm. Despite their many flaws, the films are powerfully emotive – I defy you to sit through one and not find yourself laughing, crying and, quite possibly, standing up and dancing.

So get some friends together, grab a DVD, and get ready to enter a new world.

Meet Alchemy blogger Sadaf

ImageSadaf Ahmed is the founder of Bollywood Bitesized, which aims to get more people interested in vintage Bollywood film by presenting edited films in an immersive, themed space and combining them with live music, dance and performance.

Prior to this, she spent ten years in television and print journalism. Her broadcast work included working on award-winning feature length documentaries ‘The Age of Stupid’, about the impending environmental crisis, and ‘Injustice’ about deaths in police custody. She then moved into print journalism and joined The Voice, Britain’s seminal black newspaper, as a reporter.

Next, she obtained a place on The Guardian newspaper’s ‘Trainee Scheme for Promising Journalists’. Soon after, she became pregnant and left full-time employment but continued to freelance, contributing to a variety of blogs and publications including Catalyst magazine and the blogs Pickled Politics and Liberal Conspiracy.

Sadaf really loves old stuff. Especially old films, and is on a mission to get everyone else loving them too.

Sadaf’s Top 5 Festival Picks…

1.Shiraz & The Sabri Ensemble
Fantastic concept! Take a vintage film, in this case a silent one, and put a live score to it. And it tells one of the most poetic love stories of all time, the Emperor Shah Jahan and the love that led to the building of the Taj Mahal.

2. Asian Dub Foundation
Seminal fusion band. I grew up with these guys and despite their success they remain innovative and full of integrity. Their live score to The Battle of Algiers at The Hackney Empire in 2004 was one of the most mind-blowing film/live music events I’ve ever been to.

3. Charity Shop DJ
I love these guys! They contacted me soon after I started Bollywood Bitesized, and after we’d had a chat it was clear that they’re doing with music what we’re doing with film. That is, taking the music loved by another generation and introducing it to a new one. And in doing so they’re bringing grandparents, mums, dads and the hip-kids together.

4. Mushaira and poetry recital
Many a Saturday morning in our household was filled with the sound of my dad’s Urdu poetry. He’s from Lucknow, renowned for it’s culture and he really instilled a love for wordplay and verse in me. It also goes someway to explaining my discomfort with bad language. Urdu is a language without swearwords, instead, rapier wit is the weapon of choice.

5. Bollywood Dance Workshop
I’ll definitely be making my way down to one of these workshops to bust a move. There’s a lot of great dance events on during the festival but these workshops are a really fun and accessible introduction to this increasingly popular form of South Asian dance.

Find Sadaf on the web