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The Appeal of Bollywood in the Pacific Northwest

By Tess Hansen

University of Washington

March 11, 2016

Abstract

The purpose of my research is to shed light on the growing popularity of Bollywood in Washington and Oregon states. My research draws on phone, e-mail, and in person interviews with collegiate level Bollywood dancers and a Bollywood DJ/teacher. In addition to this material, I participated in a Bollywood practicum and viewed two University of Washington Kahaani team practices. Through my research, I come to the conclusion that Bollywood serves multiple purposes to people across ethnographic lines. First, Bollywood appeals to Washington and Oregonian residents for the same reason it is so popular in India. The singing, the dancing, the colors, and the costumes display a relentless joie de vivre. Through this display of exuberance, Bollywood becomes a source of escapism. Bollywood offers participants a creative outlet to “escape” the hectic bustle of their daily lives. In addition, Bollywood connects Indian Americans with their roots by exemplifying an Indian way of life. One participant indicated that Bollywood helped him overcome negative body issues. Finally, participation in Bollywood creates a community where people of shared ethnic heritage and shared creative interests, can meet and perform together.

Introduction

Bollywood, the highly popular Hindi film industry originating in Mumbai, India, produces approximately one thousand to fifteen hundred films a year, nearly twice the amount produced in Hollywood. In recent decades, the prolific popularity of Bollywood has expanded beyond India’s borders into many other areas, including the northwestern regions of the United

States. Census data indicates that both in the United States as a whole, and in Washington State,

Asian Indian immigration has increased faster than any other Asian demographic.[1] In Bellevue, a technological center of Washington State, the Asian population has increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2010. About 40% of Bellevue’s population consists of a minority group, with the Asian

Indian group increasing the fastest since 1990.[2]

In turn, the sharing of Indian traditions like Bollywood has grown dramatically. This is demonstrated by the growing interest of Washington and Oregon residents to take up Bollywood dance lessons or become involved in Bollywood dance clubs. Bollywood dancing is recognizable for its upbeat rhythms, energetic sequences, and fusion of different dance styles. According to Prashant Kakad, a Portland based DJ, singer, dancer and Bollywood teacher, Bollywood “is a really amorphous dance…. there is not one particular thing that you can call Bollywood. It can look like hip hop, Latin dance, it can look like [traditional Indian dances] Bharatanatyam and Kathak.”[3]

Practitioners of Bollywood dance come from all walks of life. Many of the participants are of Indian descent, who self-identify as either Indians or Indian Americans. Some participants identify as Caucasians or African Americans. Men and women, from young adults to sexagenarians participate in Bollywood classes. Through my research, I argue that this surge in popularity can be attributed to three factors of Bollywood: the exaggerated and joyful elements of the song and dance, the ability to escape through a creative outlet, and the creation of community whose members may share ethnic roots or creative impulses.

The Exuberance of Bollywood

For this research project, my main source of Bollywood expertise was Prashant Kakad.

Born in India, he has always been immersed in Bollywood song and dance. In fact, he tells the story of watching forty to fifty Hindi films by the time he was six months old. He later moved to the United States to attend Cornell University. There he found the Indian Student Association and became involved in Bollywood in the United States. At parties, women would ask Prashant to teach them and their kids how to dance. He soon began to teach more and more people and this naturally led to his career as a Bollywood teacher.

During Prashant’s TED talk, he offers some insights into why Bollywood is so popular around the globe. He explains that Bollywood is visually appealing. The films use vibrant colors in the costumes and sets. Production teams spend excessively on item numbers, the fantasy song and dance scene which is usually untethered to the plot of the film. The costumes, lighting, and sets are extremely elaborate and there are usually many extras who add to the flashiness of the dance scene. When I attended the University of Washington Kahaani, the university’s Bollywood dance team, I noticed immediately the vibrancy of the costumes. Each costume was ornate and decorated with shimmering gold or silver needlework. The female dancers paired orange and pink crop tops with sheer, black bottoms. Beneath this layer, they wore an elaborate gold crop top emblazoned with gold jewels. The men wore silver vests and a pair of billowing white pants.

These item numbers are extremely important to the success of a Bollywood film. The music is often released prior to the film’s release and how well a song is received generally demonstrates how well the film will do at the box office. The music and dance also add to the accessibility of Bollywood because viewers can use the film’s music and create original choreography or re-work the moves they saw on screen. For Vivia, a member of the University of Washington Kahaani team, the accessibility of Bollywood song and dance allows her to create her own original choreography. She uses these popular Hindi movie songs, as well as pop songs by Beyoncé and Justin Bieber and creates her own material.[4]

Bollywood also ebbs and flows with the current trends. Bollywood is a fusion dance and draws on classical Indian dance forms, like Bharatanatyam and Kathak. However throughout the decades, Bollywood has evolved to mold to popular culture. In the 1980’s, Bollywood began to incorporate disco moves. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, with the establishment of MTV, hip hop styles were added.[5] To Sahana, a UW Kahaani member, Bollywood “helps” keep her up to date “with pop culture, you know all the songs and fashion.”[6] In addition, Bollywood films often use “Hinglish” to attract both English speaking and Hindi speaking audiences.[7] For example, the item number song “Sheila Ki Jawani” combines English and Hindi in the lyrics: “My name is

Sheila, Sheila ki Jawani – I’m too sexy for you – Main tere haath na aani [I won’t fall into your hands].” With a fusion of languages and movement qualities, Bollywood appeals to the masses.

Escaping the Stresses of Student and Working Life

A by-product of the larger-than-life characteristics of Bollywood is that the films and dances become a medium by which people can express themselves and escape their own lives for a moment. For many of the UW Kahaani team members I interviewed, they participated in

Bollywood because it is “a way to express joy.”[8] During one of their practice sessions, the

Kahaani team was rehearsing their ten-minute story telling piece. The story revolved around a con man finding love. A male-female duet played the leads, while the rest of the ensemble danced behind. The women danced seductively, initiating movements from their hips and whipping their hair over their shoulders, to portray the love interests. The men embodied the con artists, who circled the women with deep lunges. Gender roles are clearly delineated in the choreography. While some may criticize the ways in which gender is so deliberately assigned, the Kahaani members did not voice any negative opinions about acting in these stereotypical gender roles.

The majority of Kahaani members interviewed also explained that participation in

Bollywood helped relieve some of the stress of college life. To Alexandra, Sahana and Anisha, all members of UW Kahaani, the dynamic exercise and community building helps create an open atmosphere where they can relax from stresses of daily life, although they note that competing can become an additional form of stress. For Sahana, participation “is a nice break to hang out.”[9]

Likewise, Prashant, who is in his early thirties, believes that participating in Bollywood offers respite for those with busy work schedules. “Many people tend to get busy with life,” in their “thirties and forties and fifties”[10] both in India and the United States, and participation in

Bollywood dance allows practitioners to relax and let loose.

Bollywood is also accessible to all through the movie platform, which does not discriminate based on class or status. Bollywood films tell stories that transcend socioeconomic barriers and religious differences. The dance scenes celebrate life, love, and happiness. With the larger-than-life elements of Bollywood dance and film, Prashant believes that audiences “vicariously live through” the “relatable characters.”[11] Furthermore, the appeal to pathos is exemplified through the quintessential Bollywood happy ending. Vivia explained that “98%” of

Bollywood films tell a love story and “99%” end with a happy ending.[12] By and large, many movie goers in India and around the world who look to Bollywood for a source of escape from their daily lives and who live vicariously through the characters’ experiences, desire and expect a happy Bollywood ending.

My research into Bollywood as a method of escapism led me to an unexpected finding.

Although this point of view was only mentioned by one interviewee, I think it is worth mentioning. Prashant shared with my through our phone interview that participation in

Bollywood dance helped him lose excess weight. He continues to struggle with negative body image issues. However, Bollywood helps him cope and respect his body through a unique method of escapism:

TH: Has participation in Bollywood helped you resolve these negative body image issues?

PK: Yeah. In fact I was just teaching at a yoga festival on Saturday and I told a student that there was one particular move that involved appreciating your own body… I am able to appreciate my body for what it is, how it is, and fully celebrate and invite people to do that. But I still do struggle with these image issues… It’s almost like I can make believe or make become someone who is not affected by these things. You know? And so in that way… I sincerely believe that even now it’s helping me cope with some of those things. [13]

With the greater accessibility of Bollywood, many practitioners worry that the dance form is becoming “kitsch.”[14] When someone who is not particularly knowledgeable about Bollywood dance views the colors and specific gender roles, they may be tempted to believe that these characteristics describe India. They may believe that Bollywood is representative of an “exotic” or “timeless” India. The more experienced Bollywood dancers I interviewed expressed that Bollywood is not entirely representative of India but it does offer vestiges into their cultures and traditions. Especially, with the addition of modern hip hop styles, Bollywood has veered from its traditional roots. The Kahaani team embraces these new styles while maintaining traditional Indian styles in their choreography. I will describe the ways in which Bollywood ties Prashant and the Kahaani members to India and to a community in the next section.

Creating a Community

The University of Washington Kahaani Team’s promotional video on YouTube highlights different elements Bollywood offers to its members: passion, energy, community, travel, and family.[15] When I interviewed members of UW Kahaani and watched practice, I found that community and family were vital to its success. The team collaborated openly as they created formations and step sequences. Each of the Indian American Kahaani interviewees expressed that being a part of the collegiate team also meant being part of a community of ethnic commonalities where, Anisha points out, “[we] discuss Bollywood movies and songs. I had nobody to do that with [prior to joining the team].”[16] For Sahana, being a part of the team means that “it helps relate with culture,” the pop culture, the newest dance moves and songs.[17]

Similarly, Prashant asserts that the practice of Bollywood dance connects him with his ethnic heritage. He believes that many people across the world who are of Indian heritage become “disconnected” with traditions and festivals, like Diwali, the festival of lights. “Through my work now, I absolutely get to cherish and enjoy these memories and festivals. And I think an even bigger joy is I get to produce them, I get to share them with people and also enjoy them myself.”[18] Bollywood seems to have nostalgic underpinnings.

The UW Kahaani Team is composed of 13 Indian American women, 3 Indian American men, and two Caucasian women. While the Indian-Americans expressed a connection with their ethnic backgrounds and connection with India despite geographical distance, one Caucasian interviewee believed that participation in Bollywood fostered an appreciation and respect for

Indian cultures and traditions. Alexandra became interested in Indian culture through the

International High School in Kirkland, WA and joined UW Kahaani as a way to further her study. She believes that the Kahaani team feels like family because each member has a vested interest in sharing Indian culture to Pacific Northwest, and even United States, audiences. The team has competed across the country and even performed a flash mob, where they shared the joy of Bollywood to the public. For Alexandra, participation also means that she has the opportunity to learn about Indian holidays, like Holi, a springtime festival of colors.[19]

Bollywood films and dances also seem to foster religious and ethnic diversity. Bollywood actors are religiously diverse. Shah Rukh Khan, the highest grossing and arguably the most popular Hindi film star considers himself a Muslim.[20] Nagma, a Muslim-born Hindi film actress, converted to Christianity.[21] In Portland, Prashant’s students come from varied ethnic backgrounds. “I have maybe 20% Indians and 80% people from all over the world that live in the US, like Americans, some of them are Latinos, some of them are Romanian, Middle Eastern, and a lot of Americans [Caucasians].”[22] Prashant has purposefully chosen to cater to this non-Indian crowd by hosting his classes on the side of Portland where not many Indians reside. He attempts to encourage multiculturalism and understanding through these classes.

Indeed, during the Bollywood practicum when I was first introduced to DJ Prashant, I could clearly see why one, regardless of ethnic identity, age or gender, would be drawn to the sights and sounds of Bollywood. DJ Prashant encouraged us with unabashed energy, calling out the “disco” step or the hip-hop “sprinkler” move. The class followed in unison, each of us completely enthralled in catching the next step and staying in time with the party-inducing beats of “Jai ho.” Each of us was exhausted, but we persisted with a relentless, contagious energy. We were captivated by the pure joy of the movement. Sometimes, I would get off the beat or forget the sequence of steps. But it didn’t matter. If all else failed, DJ Prashant would remind us “Indian head shake, big smile, can’t lose!”

Works Cited

Joseph, Anthony. “Popular South Indian actress Nagma embraces Christianity; wants to spread

Gospel.” Accessed March 2, 2016. http://www.christiantoday.co.in/article/popular.

south.indian.actress.nagma.embraces.christianity.wants.to.spread.gospel/2692.htm.

Shresthova, Sangita. “More Indian than India? Bollywood Dance in Los

Angeles.” Is It All About Hips?: Around the World with Bollywood Dance. New Delhi:

Sage, 2011.

Springer, Richard. “Census: Asian-Indian Population Explodes Across U.S.” New American

Media. Accessed February 29, 2016. http://newamericamedia.org/2011/05/census-

asian-indian-population-explodes-across-us.php.

Tedx Talks. “TEDxConcordiaUPortland – Prashant Kakad – ‘Bollywood-The Timing is Right’.”

YouTube Video, 25:54. Posted June 18, 2011.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZQcjE2t-pM.

“The Religion and Political Views of Shah Rukh Khan.” The Hollowverse. Accessed March 2,

  1. http://hollowverse.com/shahrukh-khan/.

Tong, Collin. “Census Shows Bellevue’s Growing Asian, Minority Population.” Crosscut.

Accessed February 29, 2016.http://crosscut.com/2011/04/ census-shows-bellevues-growing-asian-minority-popu/.

UW Kahaani. “Kahaani 2015-2016 Promo.” YouTube video, 0:25. Posted September 23, 2015.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t5C94Qao4E.

“What is Bollywood?” Rhythm India. Accessed March 2, 2016. http://www.rhythm-india.com/

bollywood-dance.html.

[1] Richard Springer, “Census: Asian-Indian Population Explodes across U.S,” New American Media, accessed February 29, 2016, http://newamericamedia.org/2011/05/census- asian-indian-population- explodes-across-us.php.

 

[2] Collin Tong, “Census Shows Bellevue’s Growing Asian, Minority Population,” Crosscut, accessed February 19, 2016, http://crosscut.com/2011/04/census-shows-bellevues-growing-asian -minority-popu/.

[3] Prashant Kakad, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

[4] Vivia, interview with author, January 21, 2016.

[5] “What is Bollywood?” Rhythm India, accessed March 2, 2016, http://www.rhythm-india.com/ bollywood-dance.html.

[6] Sahana, interview with author, March 4, 2016.

[7] Tedx Talks, “TEDxConcordiaUPortland – Prashant Kakad – ‘Bollywood-The Timing is Right’,” YouTube Video, 25:54, posted June 18, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= TZQcjE2t-pM.

 

[8] Tasha, interview with author, January 21, 2016.

[9] Sahana, interview with author, March 4, 2016.

[10] Prashant, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

[11] Prashant, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

[12] Vivia, interview with author, January 21, 2016.

[13] Prashant Kakad, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

[14] Sangita Shresthova. “More Indian than India? Bollywood Dance in Los Angeles.” Is It All About Hips?: Around the World with Bollywood Dance. New Delhi: Sage, 2011, 134.

[15] UW Kahaani, “Kahaani 2015-2016 Promo.” YouTube video, 0:25, posted September 23, 2015,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t5C94Qao4E.

[16] Anisha, interview with author, March 4, 2016.

[17] Sahana, interview with author, March 4, 2016.

[18] Prashant, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

[19] Alexandra, interview with author, March 4, 2016.

[20] “The Religion and Political Views of Shah Rukh Khan,” The Hollowverse, accessed March 2, 2016, http://hollowverse.com/shahrukh-khan/.

[21] Anthony Joseph, “Popular South Indian actress Nagma embraces Christianity; wants to spread gospel,” accessed March 2, 2016, http://www.christiantoday.co.in/article/popular. south.indian.actress.nagma.embraces.christianity.wants.to.spread.gospel/2692.htm.

[22] Prashant, interview with author, February 29, 2016.

By | 2017-11-17T06:11:57+00:00 March 28th, 2016|Blog|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Adrienne Smith March 28, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Go Prashant Kakad, it’s not your birthday, but it will be in 4 months. We gon party anyway.

  2. Ramya Govindarajan March 28, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Indeed a delightful read. Thank you for sharing.

Comments are closed.