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Examining the unexcavated histories of Hindi cinema's dancing women

Feb 8 2019

In Bollywood films from the 1930s to 1990s, women dancers often appeared as central figures. Usha Iyer, assistant professor of film and media studies, studies the unexcavated histories of Hindi cinema’s dancing women, constructing a corporeal history that allows a better understanding of not only cinema, but of modernity. In her Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows talk, Iyer shared research for her upcoming book, The Dancing Heroine: Choreographing Performance in Popular Hindi Cinema (under contract with Oxford University Press).

photo of Usha Iyer, assistant professor of film and media studies
Dr. Usha Iyer, assistant professor of
film and media studies

Indian cinema is the most prolific in the world, surpassing Hollywood in production. Hindi cinema, the subject of Iyer’s research, is produced in Mumbai and includes Bollywood films. Feminist film criticism has significantly theorized women’s representation in the cinema as existing purely for the “male gaze,” and lacking in agency. Iyer complicates this discourse by centering her analysis on female dancing and corporeality, and reveals a more complex picture of these “dancing women” than previously understood.

In particular, Iyer examined the role of dance in the work of four iconic Hindi film actresses, noting how some dancer-actresses undermine existing gender norms through their dancing bodies. A lead dancer-actress could exercise great influence on the film, determining the choice of music composers and music performers. Their dancing bodies mobilized cinematic technologies, including music, camera movement, editing patterns, and the early adoption of expensive color film for song-and-dance sequences.

Feminist film criticism has significantly theorized women’s representation in the cinema as existing purely for the “male gaze,” and lacking in agency. Iyer complicates this discourse by centering her analysis on female dancing and corporeality, and reveals a more complex picture of these “dancing women” than previously understood.

Iyer then went on to discuss one particular dancer-actress from the 1930s & 40s - Sadhona Bose. Working as a performer previously had been considered taboo – the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927 said that dancers are not from the “cultured classes,” and recommended such women “do not take up film acting.” Bose made it possible for an upper-middle class woman to be a dancer, challenging gender norms and also contributing to a newly emerging mass culture. In her way, Bose represented the women at the heart of anti-colonial reconfiguration in the Indian sub-continent.

Bose pushed boundaries as a female artist, composing and performing her own dances, and designing sets, props, costumes. She recomposed and regendered the field, as typically men performed many of these roles. By claiming artistic decisions, Bose led the way for others. She did not have an easy time, as she still risked losing her reputation by participating in theater. Her actions shifted opportunities for educated Hindu women.

In contrast is another dancer of the 1930s and 1940s, Azurie. While Bose served as the heroine, situated at the narrative and moral center of the film, such characters often shared the screen with another woman, the “vamp.” This character is a dancer who is sexualized and marginalized within the narrative. Azurie played such roles, rarely accorded even a character name. Erasing the specificity of her name and mixed-race identity, Azurie exemplifies this ephemeral dancer, both invisible and fetishized. And yet, if we reconstruct a corporeal history of the cinema – founded on choreography, rhythm, music, and dance – we may excavate the contributions of these occluded figures as profoundly significant for the development of Indian film.

In her studies of dance-centered films, Iyer pays particular attention to the dancers and how they use their bodies. She tracks specific movements of their eyes, head, limbs, and torso. This framework of body zones contributes to a corporeal understanding of the women’s presence in films. Given the political and societal changes occurring during these periods, the films provide a window into globalization and other societal shifts occurring before the more commonly studied period of the 1990s.

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