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Book Review: Is It All About the Hips?  Around the World With Bollywood Dance

by Sangita Shresthova

reviewed by David Mead
January 2012

Sangita Shresthova’s introduction to Hindi cinema took place at her cousin’s pirated video rental store in Kathmandu. What remained fixed in her memory were the dances, particularly the colourful blending of movement sources and costumes that in many ways reflected her own mixed Nepali-Czech upbringing and identity. Those memories, her later studies in modern dance in America and Bharat Natyam in India, and her interest in film in non-Western cultures, led her to this fascinating and informative study of Bollywood dance.

“Is It All About Hips?” Is far more than a description of Bollywood. It is very much a personal journey of discovery through the dance as practiced in Mumbai, Kathmandu and Los Angeles. It is an academic book, but don’t let that put you off. Shrestova’s writing style is very readable. She describes what she finds in considerable detail. Although her observations focus very much on specific schools in India and the US, she always places them in the wider context and never loses sight of the bigger picture. Her conclusion, as we might suspect, is that Bollywood dance is indeed about much more than hips.

Shrestova discovers how Bollywood has become increasingly international with the films and especially the dance increasingly popular across the world. She observes how, in India, the ranks of the dancers have been swelled by the arrival of foreign dancers, initially largely from the former Soviet republics, and most of whom are white, blonde, and female. After first arriving on short-term contracts, several have settled permanently in Mumbai.

Bollywood is often perceived as being all about glamour. But Shrestova finds a disreputable side too in a plethora seedy Kathmandu dance bars that feature sexually explicit performances. Some of the young female dancers went there voluntarily, but she notes that others were sold into what is effectively a form of sexual slavery by their relatives.

While Bollywood’s appeal is now international, Shrestova finds that it remains local and subject to local cultural preferences in many ways. As is often the case she discovers that diasporic communities prefer to emphasise the Indian nature of the dance, something she puts down to orientalised depictions of India presented in local media and a need to keep in touch with a real or imagined homeland. In her observations in Nakul Dev Mahajan’s Bollywood Dance Studios in Los Angeles she finds dancers and teachers have a strong preference for what they consider ‘real’ classical Indian dance gestures, expressions, and movements..

In India, on the other hand, she notes how Bollywood has always drawn on a wide variety of Indian and non-Indian dance movements in response to changing audience needs. At Shiamak Davar's Institute for the Performing Arts in Mumbai she finds the emphasis is more on presenting dance full of jazz, hip-hop influences punches, jumps and shimmies, often set to Western techno remixes. They also spend hours making sure their bodies are athletic and highly toned, in stark contrast to those in movies of not so long along. Could it be that the sexual aspect is not restricted to those Nepali bars?

I particularly liked the way Shrestova incorporates seamlessly some of the history of Bollywood into her writing. There are gaps, but then this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the form. If you want a history book, look elsewhere. The only gripe, and it is a minor one, is that I would have preferred more illustrations and for them to the placed alongside the relevant text rather than all grouped together in the centre of the book. But there is a unusual and very welcome extra provided courtesy of audio-visual extras additions to the book, organised by chapter and that make reference to specific passages, available at www.bollynatyam.com. If you want a personal picture of Bollywood today, “Is It All About Hips?” is well worth a read.

“Is It All About Hips?” is published by Sage Publications
ISBN: 9788132106852
Available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, direct from Sage, and via most good booksellers.

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