Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My favorite CLASSICAL dancers in Indian Cinema

The lovely Nicki of Hmong Chick Who Loves Indian Cinema and I were tweeting back & forth about our favorite dancers in Indian Cinema, which got me thinking about my favorite CLASSICAL dancers in Indian Cinema ... and since list-making is my favorite thing EVER, of course I had to compile a list and share it!

Now though the people on this list have legitimate Classical Dance training, it's rarely represented in their films. There's Classical Dance, and then there's FILMI Classical Dance, which is usually a slightly grotesque version of the real thing with exaggerated movements and expressions. Filmi Classical also always has a generous helping of hip-shaking and unnecessary hand/finger flourishing. I get annoyed by it, and yet, I seek it out. It's always nice to see Classical Dance represented in films, but then when it gets tarnished or cheapened I get angry.

Still, there are some Actors and Actresses that always show that little extra skill in dancing, and it is indeed because of their Classical Dance training. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Kamal Hassan
He's definitely my #1 favorite because he was SO compelling and strong when he danced. Also Bharatanatyam is made for a male body (Nataraja was the Lord of Dance after all), and it falls more naturally on the male structure. Kamal Hassan definitely made it look effortless and graceful yet 100% masculine. Here he is in a gorgeous item from Sagara Sangamam:

2. Shobhana
I think Shobhana is one of the most spectacular classical dancers from films. She is utterly elegant and beautiful. I do have ONE problem with her and that's that she doesn't complete her movements, but I fault the choreographers and film directors that try to make her dance so fast. Her dance style is also REALLY different from the kind I learned - hers is more flowy and influenced by ballet, but one of my best friends also learned from Smt. Chitra Visheshwaran (Shobhana's Guru) in Chennai and she dances with this same style, so I gained a great appreciation for it. Shobana won the National Award for her performance as the possessed dancer in Manichitratazhu (the Malayalam original of Chandramukhi and Bhool Bhulaiya):

3. Vyjayanthimala
I gained my love for Vyjayanthi from my mom who was an uber-fan and used to prance around Mumbai spouting her dialogues at 'roadside romeos' that tried to tease her and her friends. But she is indeed a spectacular dancer and unbelievably gorgeous in full Bharatanatyam costume. She is also incredibly versatile and has one of the most expressive faces in Indian Cinema! Check out her display of dances from all over India, ending with the Thillana in Bharatanatyam from Ladki:

4. Vineeth
I haven't seen a TON of Vineeth, I'll admit. I remember him from Kadhal Desam, most famous for the Rehman song "Mustafa Mustafa Don't Worry Mustafa". It wasn't till much later that I realized he was a classical dancer! As well he should be, since he's related to late Actress/Dancer Padmini and Shobhana as well. He's a student of Dr. Padma Subramanyam and has that more flowy style associated with the Vazhavoor style of Bharatanatyam. You might recognize him from the Rajnikanth blockbuster Chandramukhi and it's Hindi remake Bhool Bhulaiya. I get an instant crush on any man that can do classical dance and maintain the masculinity of it (it's rare these days). And he also looks like a young Kamal Hassan. Whenever I mentally choreograph classical-based film duets, I always picture Vineeth as my partner. Here he is strutting his stuff in a live performance:

5. Madhuri Dixit

I don't even need to explain Mads. Everyone knows that she is one of the most brilliant dancers in recent Bollywood years. Her Kathak training is evident in every kind of dance she does, but she has also had ample opportunity to show off her Classical Dance skill. I always remember her joy and exuberance in the Kathak practice scene from Dil To Pagal Hai, but I think her Magnum Opus is definitely her grand scale performance in Devdas said to be composed by the great Pandit Birju Maharaj:

6. Padmini
Padmini Aunty was a regular visitor to our house in my childhood as my mother was very close with her family. My mom is always saying that I remind her of Padmini or her sister Ragini when they were young. Since I'm the youngest of three sisters, my mom used to often call us her own Lalitha/Padmini/Ragini. But before she was the gravelly-voiced, laughing Aunty at our house, she was a featured classical dancer in many, many films. I always feel that the choreography they gave her was absolutely ridiculous, but she certainly gave it her all! A student of the famous Vazhavoor Ramaiah Pillai, she had some very solid training behind her. One of her most famous roles was in the Tamil movie Thillana Mohanambal in which she played a noted dancer (*the video below does not feature the original singer) -- points if you spot Manorama as "Jillu Jillu Ramamani":

7. Meenakshi Seshadhri

I miss the 80s. And Meenakshi was an actress that actually had a strong background in Classical Dance but very, very rarely had an opportunity to showcase it. One of the moments where she got to show off what she could do was her Tandav Dance from the amazing movie Damini. Incidentally, she currently runs a dance school in Texas somewhere. Here she is performing "Madhuban Mein Radhika" at a live performance in Dubai:

8. Waheeda Rehman
Waheeda Aunty was another friend/colleague of my mom's and I of course love her dancing because she learned from our same Gurus in India - the one and only Gurus of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kalamandir in Mumbai, particularly Guru Mahalingam Pillai who I was lucky enough to study under in the early 90s. Though my favorite performance of hers was much later (Mahaan - 1983), her earlier films have wonderful displays of dance that really show her talent. You can see her dance training shine through in items from Neel Kamal, Guide, and Teesri Kasam. Here she is in Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1961):

9. Komal Mahuvakar
She's virtually unknown, but I totally LOVED this girl. She couldn't have been more than 15 when she starred in the Rajshri film Payal Ki Jhankar which was ALL about dance (and therefore is one of my favorite movies of all time). I never saw her in much after that, though she had a small role as one of the household children in Khusboorat (she briefly dances in "Piya Bawri"), and I vaguely remember her in Nagina. I guess she moved down South later and starred in Tamil films like Michael Madana Kamarajan under the name "Roopini". But Payal Ki Jhankar is definitely her career highlight. The dancing is filmi-classical for sure, and often sloppy or odd-looking, but there is some definite training behind it. I loved her in "Dekho Kanha Nahin" (she's not the girl dancing at the beginning, you have to forward a bit to get to her part), and you can see her schooling her co-star in the Jugalbandi Dance-Off "Kar Singar". Check her out, looking extremely pretty in pink:

10. Hema Malini
Hema Malini may be a bit of an obvious choice, being well-known for being one of the best classical dancers in Bollywood. I've seen her classical dance productions on stage when they toured in the U.S., and I have to say I was less than impressed. However she's done enough beautiful work on-screen for me to appreciate her, and I also appreciate the work she does to promote Classical Dance. She also got some of the best classically-based songs in Indian Cinema,in movies such as Mrig Trishna, Mehbooba, Abhinetri, Kinara, Lekin and so many more. Here she is dancing with her daughters in a live stage performance (does anyone else think Esha looks like Deepika Padukone in Odissi costume?):

11. Aishwariya Rai
Ash is also slightly obvious, though I don't necessarily LIKE her as an actress or consider her one of my favorites otherwise. I do always appreciate her dancing. She is trained in Bharatanatyam and I remember reading somewhere that she had trained up to arangetram level (professional debut) but didn't complete it. She is a natural dancer and lovely to watch! I always love seeing her dance and wish they would really showcase her full ability like they did for Hema Malini and Madhuri Dixit. Umrao Jaan gave her a great opportunity to show her classical training, as evidenced by many of the clips in this fan-made video on YouTube (v. well done!). Here she is in my absolute favorite Aishwariya movie, the Tamil film Kandukonden Kandukonden (inspired by Sense and Sensibility):

12. Prabhu Deva
Prabhu Deva may seem like an odd choice, but he IS indeed trained in Classical Dance and quite skilled at it. It's probably what gives him such an edge over other amazing dancers like Lawrence and Vijay. We almost NEVER see it, although there is the number "Saravanabhava" from the HILARIOUS movie Kadhala Kadhala (also starring Kamal Hassan) - which I can't find anywhere on YouTube unfortunately. But here's a clip from Kadhalan in which his character is trying to learn Bharatanatyam to win over his ladylove:

Of course I should mention that there are many more famous Classical Dancers in Cinema, such as Kamala Lakshman, Gopi Krishna, Bhanupriya, Jaya Prada, Anjali Devi, Bombay Meenakshi etc. They certainly deserve credit for their brilliant work. My mom particularly loves Kamala Lakshman, and she performed with Gopi Krishna all over India and North America. But I just had to list my personal favorites!

For more on Classical Dance in Indian Cinema, I definitely recommend you visit the fabulous Minai's blog - her stuff is just brilliant!


  1. Wonderful post!! Thanks for the shoutout. It was great convo we had last night :)

    I went through the list and watched most of the videos. Great choices!!

  2. Hi Amaluu, Nice post, and from a fellow compulsive list maker too, haha! And thanks for the shout out.

    I’m still trying to find more films of Vineeth’s in which he dances. I think my favorite dance of his so far is in this song from Kamaladalam starting at 3:55: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSGrN4_PAdE Just look at his lines!

    Wait - Padmini visited your house when you were younger? In person? The real Padmini? That’s amazing.

    I’m still waiting for my Payal Ki Jhankar DVD to arrive; stupid AnyTamil! Anywho, toodles!

  3. Ooops! This is a great list of great dancers. I like Aishwariya Rai -the way she dances. It's cool.

    The story is great behind their music video is nice.

  4. Bharathanatya medhaiye, nee vaazhga!!

    Absolutely love your post. Still reeling from the "Padmini aunty came to my house" statement.Lol! But you are so right with the difference. I was suckered into classical, thinking it was like what you saw in the movies. But valuable years no less. One thing though, I noticed you haven't mentioned another leading lady from the south, Revathy. Her dance-a-thon in Punnagai Mannan is a highlight of the film that I remember watching over and over, beyond the "Charlie Chaplin" comedy.

    Another one to a lesser extent is Vijayashanthi. The amount of people that are not even aware of her dancing in Netrikkan's Maapillaikku and then in Janaki Ramudu(Cant think of the Tamil title but I know it was dubbed)is amazing but she was very new and young. Funny how she played Rajnikanth's sister/daughter in Netrikkan and his wife in Mannan but she looks totally different. Almost unrecognisable. Almost.

    But still some great choices. Feel kinda sad for the current batch of leading ladies as you dont see many that have skills like these. Its more a pretty face and doing a crash course if its needed. Some pull it off like Jyothika and Soundarya who did the Chandramukhi/Aaptha Mithra movies but others are devastatingly obvious with their lack of knowledge(i.e. Devayani in Swarnamugi?!?!)

    Great post. Looking forward to more.

  5. Thanks Githa, I agree with so much you said, but OMG Devayani in Swarnamugi was SUCH A TRAVESTY!!!!!! I thought Jyo was actually pretty awful in Chandramukhi too, but I suppose that was kind of the point, eh? Vindhya too was AWFUL in Sangamam. Why can't they just cast girls that can dance?

  6. Lovely post! I was doing a paper on Indian popular films. This really helped me in the section 'Dance'! Thanks a lot Amaluu!

  7. I love this list :) Padmini aunty taught me when I was really young , and I learned from her until we moved away. She was the reason I fell in love with classical dance and none of my other gurus could compare. Even in her older years the way she danced put al the other younger teachers to shame, she was a very sweet and dedicated teacher. Thank you for this list

    1. Padmini Aunty was darling. We miss her a lot. What a spirit!

  8. Replies
    1. I know she's awesome but she was never one of my personal favorites - I don't know why. But I give credit where credit is due. :-)

  9. This post gives really great idea for a beginner. Kathak is said to be one of the most famous and important classical dance forms of India and is very popular across the globe. You can also find the best Kathak dance classes in Nagpur.

  10. What about Jaya PrAda she is my favorite

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  12. Amazing post. Wonderful.