Given the recent mainstreaming of all things South Asian—including the hip-hop-meets-Indian filmi beats of M.I.A., the canonization of Bollywood kitsch, and even the infiltration of Indian spices into the average American’s palate—it’s no surprise that Fox’s reality TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, decided to hop on the bandwagon.
In July, one episode featured a high-energy dance complete with colorful costumes, intricate mudras, and dramatic floor sequences, accompanied to the song “Dhoom Taana” from the film Om Shanti Om. The sequence, choreographed by Los Angeles-based Nakul Dev Mahajan (a.k.a. Hollywood’s Bollywood choreographer), was a welcome reprieve from the more traditional fare that spectators usually see on the nation’s most popular television show. And Mahajan’s contribution was refreshingly devoid of the MTV flourishes of contemporary Bollywood films.
“Bollywood dance can get diluted or lost in translation,” says Mahajan, whose classical Indian dance training lends a more “authentic” feel to his choreography. “My work goes for the clean, classic feel of films from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s … mainstream America doesn’t want to see a rip-off of a Michael Jackson video, but rather the intricate handwork, footwork, and colors that categorize the work as more traditional. This is the most captivating aspect to someone who is not familiar with Bollywood.”
Over the last year, Mahajan’s mission to spread cultural awareness through dance has not only garnered a huge following of potential dancers (he’s the founder of the first U.S. Bollywood dance company, NDM Bollywood Dance Productions, and also has a studio that has offered classes to over 3,000 students since 2003). It’s also made an impression on Hollywood’s luminaries and prominent choreographers like Mia Michaels (also a guest choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance) and Bollywood dance doyenne Farah Khan.
Mahajan’s work exploded on the scene about four years ago, when the daytime NBC soap opera Passions enlisted him to choreograph a Bollywood dance sequence for one of the episodes. Since then, Mahajan’s work has been featured on dozens of commercials and shows, including Saturday Night Live,The Office, and MTV’s popular reality series, Next.
“My experiences over the last year have been surreal,” he affirms. “A long time ago, I decided dance would be my path, regardless of the South Asian norm of becoming a doctor or engineer. I knew I had to keep my eye on the prize, even if I didn’t know what the prize was.” Thankfully, the recent global demand of Indian cinema and music made Mahajan’s introduction on the national dance scene more feasible. “Since stars like Madonna have contributed to the mainstreaming of Bollywood, there’s now room for this kind of work in Hollywood,” Mahajan acknowledges.
Of course, Mahajan was well acquainted with Bollywood far before Madonna’s erstwhile love affair with all things Indian. Mahajan’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, and staying abreast of the proliferation of Indian films was part of “making sure we kept up with the culture and stayed close to our roots, no matter what neck of the woods we were in.”
Mahajan would play his mother’s vintage ’80s music on his boom box and choreograph sequences that matched the melodrama of what he saw in the films. He remembers being five years old and watching stars like Amitabh Bachchan: “[Amitabh] was the first man who inspired me to dance. He wasn’t necessarily the best, since at that time choreography for men was limited, but he did what he did with such zest. I would copy his expressions and imitate the sequences—it gave me insight into the fact that this wasn’t just dance. It was also theatre and entertainment.” Of course, it wasn’t until years later that Mahajan discovered choreography. At that point, he knew he’d found his calling. “When I discovered there was a name for what I did on my own time, I thought, ‘I want to be the person who teaches someone like Rekha to move!’” Astonishingly, Mahajan—who is known for high-velocity, technically precise work—got his first formal training in dance at the age of 17. “Before that, people would see me perform at local Indian events or weddings and always thought I was good, but it wasn’t until much later that I branched out to learn forms like ballroom, modern, Latin … and of course, bhangra, kathak, bharatanatyam.”
Mahajan, whose influences include prominent choreographer Saroj Khan (famous for her groundbreaking routines with actresses like Madhuri Dixit), acknowledges that although he prefers the traditional route, it is crucial to be as eclectic as possible. “My work is traditional-meets-contemporary. It’s family-friendly, it’s got technique, it’s accessible to large audiences, and it can be translated to different kinds of music. It’s kind of like a Broadway style of dance, where you have to be well versed in a plethora of styles.”
Mahajan is currently working on his “One Man Bollywood Show,” a stage production that premieres in Santa Monica on January 31. Inspiration arose when Mahajan considered the way comedians proffer their entertainment—without too many frills and, usually, only a stool and microphone. “I wondered what it would be like to do this with dance,” he says. Mahajan proceeded to whip up a script with his writer friend, Sonia Singh, which would be about the many years which led up to his success. “It’s basically a story about a young boy who wants to be a Bollywood dancer, who fights adversity and reaches for his dreams … intercut with lots of dance,” says Mahajan. “The idea is that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be entertained. And it’s not just for people familiar with Bollywood. There’s this larger inspirational message about treading the road not taken.”
Mahajan describes the show as shedding light on the fact that his is not simply an overnight success story. “It took me 15 or 16 years of hard work. Many young people think it’ll happen for them really quickly, but you need discipline and dedication. I always tell my students that if they want to pursue this, they should do it if they feel that without dance, they can’t breathe.”
Mahajan also emphasizes the importance of family support. “I am lucky that my parents have always stood behind me every step of the way, and now NDM is a family business. They realized mine was a talent that wasn’t nurtured in our community, but they also made me realize the importance of having an education as a safety net and being well rounded.”
While the career path of dance may be an uncertain one, Mahajan knows that it’s about more than entertainment value; it’s also about instilling cultural awareness in today’s youth. “It’s so important for me to be a role models to boys in particular, to show them that they can break molds and that dance isn’t just a ‘girl’ thing. Dance is the original form of entertainment. It used to occupy the highest level of art in South Asian culture, but somewhere along the way, it became less important.”
Mahajan has hope that the climate is changing for young dancers. At a recent casting call for an NBC reality-based dance show, on which he is collaborating with renowned choreographer Nigel Lithgoe, Mahajan was thrilled to see the number of high school and college-aged dancers in attendance. “I told them all how proud I was. 10 years ago, there just weren’t these kinds of opportunities for young dancers. You wouldn’t have gotten men to show up, and now there are 30 guys who all want to do it.”
As far as whether or not Bollywood dance will eventually slip from its current hold in the cultural zeitgeist, Mahajan doesn’t think so. “It’s kind of like the new belly dance,” he says. “Belly dance has been around for a while, and people are still doing it. I think that Westerners find themselves drawn to the older material, because it’s sort of like traveling to India. I think that as long as the dance stays true to its original style and doesn’t descend into an MTV ‘copycat’ genre, people will be drawn to it. The classics never die.”
The One Man Bollywood Show by Nakul Dev Mahajan. Partial proceeds to benefit Pratham, an India-based nonprofit organization that fights illiteracy by building schools in India. Presented by NDM Bollywood Dance Studios & Productions. Saturday. January 31, 2009. 7 p.m. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire, Los Angeles. Tickets: (213) 365-3500. Visit www.ndmdance.com
Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, creative nonfiction writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She has written for publications including ArtWeek, San Francisco Weekly, Bitch: A Feminist Response to Popular Culture, and ColorLines. She is also an active community arts organizer and a former board member/curatorial committee member of San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop.