Bollywood breaks down gender norms

Oh Siyapa! My muscles were ridiculously sore, yet I was very happy after participating in a Bollywood dance workshop led by Kareem Khubchandani, a former Davis Center staff member.

Khubchandani grew up dancing in a variety of shows in Ghana and recalled that since there were no classical or folk Indian teachers, he had to rely on teaching himself Bollywood as his form of connection with Indian culture. He performed Bollywood dancing throughout his time at Colgate. In his opinion, the significance of Bollywood dancing, especially on a college campus, is that it is a “performance of identity and culture that is not dated nor rooted in the past.” He explained how Bollywood is malleable in responding to cultural trends. You don’t have to be a folk dancer to dance Bollywood, which allows different expertise to be incorporated.

Interestingly, Khubchandani also mentioned that Bollywood allows people to be sexy (which makes sense given the prevalence of hip swaying and chest bumping in Bollywood choreography) and counters the stereotype held by Americans that South Asians are nerds or geeks. Bollywood brings out the sexy in everyone. Even though we are not all “Raj Koothrappalis,” Bollywood is an opportunity to stage a different version of South Asians. Yet, Khubchandani also fears of the commodification of Bollywood, which has been simplified and drowned in the mainstream by shows like “So You Think You Can Dance?” After researching classical dance in South India, he hopes that South Indian dance, which has usually been excluded from Bollywood, will be slowly brought into diasporic pop culture, especially with the increase in South Indian migration to the U.S.

The most special aspect of this workshop was that it fused Bollywood with the non-binary gender spectrum. Bollywood choreography is typically very gender segregated, yet Khubchandani tries to break down this segregation as much as possible. Khubchandani is also involved in drag and does not see gender as binary. Men usually have loud thumpy moves laden with leg sprawling whereas women tend to keep their legs closed, hips undulating and fingers in elegant floral-like shapes. The dance that Khubchandani taught us was to the song “London Thumakda,” a beautiful upbeat wedding song (that everyone should dance to at least once in their lifetime) with a choreography that incorporated both masculine and feminine movements.

Honestly, I loved dancing “like a man” as much as I like dancing “like a woman.” As a Dhamaka dancer, I was inspired by this new intersectionality between gender and Bollywood dancing. When comparing Bollywood to drag, Khubchandani said that Bollywood is more choreographed to be like storytelling whereas drag dancing is more improvised and molded around the beats in club music. The anecdotal nature of Bollywood is not only derived from folk traditions but also makes sense given that most Bollywood songs are from Bollywood movies. The ingredients for a typical Bollywood movie are usually Sharukh Khan, unnecessary (yet equally entertaining) dramatic zoom-ins, a fair skin heroine  and a plethora of songs that fit right into the movie’s plot. However strange it is to have characters suddenly break out into song throughout the movie with coincidental, perfectly synched choreography and music coming from an unidentified source, it is the very essence of Bollywood. This explains the wide variety of moods and tones that can be found in the world of Bollywood.

Khubchandani believes that although Bollywood can look like hip-hop, it should not lose its folk influence with storytelling and facial expressions because it is  more about feeling the lyrics and story of the songs rather than presenting the aesthetics.

Kareem Khubchandani hopes that South Indian dance will be slowly brought into diasporic pop culture. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.