Bollywood and dance duels

Hrithik Roshan: Remember what I taught you?

Tiger Shroff: Jo seekha hai aapse seekha hai. (Everything I have learnt, I have learnt from you)

Hrithik: Kabhi mera student hua karta tha. Ab shayad usse lagta hai ki apne teacher se aage nikal gaya hai. (He was my student once. Now he thinks he has become better at the game than his teacher.)

This terse exchange of dialogues that I have handpicked from Yash Raj Films’ Hrithik-Tiger venture, War, could well be from the thoughts running around in the two actors’ heads when they were shooting a dance-off to the rumbustious number Jai Jai Shiv Shankar.

While Tiger’s oft-professed admiration for Hrithik means that there is a certain bonhomie between the two in real life, there is also no doubt that both the stars — arguably the best dancers today — have toiled hard and performed their most cartilage-defying steps in the song…for one thing neither actor wants for sure is to come off as second best.

 A dance-off between two established actors/actresses has always been a major attraction for the audience. Who doesn’t like to judge a good competition? As a savvy filmmaker had put it after pitting two veteran actors against each other: ‘Jab do sher ladte hai, tabhi to log dekhne aate hai.’

Bollywood and dance duels

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has turned the dance-off into an art form in his films. In the Bimal Roy-directed classic Devdas (1955) starring Dilip Kumar, the two actresses, Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala, don’t even come face to face with each other barring a fleeting shot of them passing each other on the road. But in the Bhansali-directed Devdas (2002), the girls’ many interactions include a frolicsome dance-off at a Durga Puja to a lively number, Dola re dola.

It is difficult to tell who is the better dancer; Aishwarya matches the more-experienced Madhuri step for step and doesn’t lag behind in the expression department either. Spurred by the success of the Dola number, Bhansali craftily incorporated a dance-off in Bajirao Mastani (2015) between Bajirao’s wife (Priyanka Chopra) and the ‘piya ki sawari’ (Deepika Padukone) in the Pinga number. While Deepika is popularly believed to be the better dancer, Priyanka Chopra equalled her with her unbridled enthusiasm.

Bollywood’s leading Terpischorean talent, Vyajayanthimala, is the queen of dance-offs and has featured in several. In F C Mehra’s period film, Amrapali (1966), she plays the titular role and challenges the court dancer (a less-seen face but also a dancer par excellence).

Bollywood and dance duels

They have a dance duel with dandiyas, cymbals and rangoli (the two nimble-footed dancers create coloured designs with their footwork) till the fatigued, competitor slips up and accepts Vyjayanthimala’s superiority.

In another F C Mehra produced film, Prince, Vyjayanthimala gets an opportunity to display her mastery over many Indian classical forms by dancing in strikingly bright ensembles (red, gold, green et.al.) while the ever fascinating Helen has a field day performing western numbers that can be best described as a fusion of Spanish, Oriental and Bollywood dance. But before you can choose a winner between the two, leading man Shammi Kapoor barges into the fray, challenging both the greats with Muqabala humse na karo. 

For Vyjayanthimala, possibly the biggest challenge was to share a dance stage with her arch rival accomplished danseuse Padmini to Aaja o aaja in Raaj Tilak (1958). This costume drama had both actresses fighting over a man (what else?) and onstage they shared dagger looks and a capable choreographer.

Bollywood and dance duels

The song is a treat to watch — if only the number was memorable. Tellingly, in the song, Vyjayanthimala scornfully asks a piqued Padmini, ‘Kehti hai kya payal meri, jawab de tu’ before they both launch into a blitzkrieg of difficult dance moves. On YouTube, the votes about who is the better dancer seem divided between the two. It’s worth taking a dekko and forming your own opinion.

When I was interviewing Babita once, she shared an interesting anecdote about shooting a dance-off with Helen for the film Dus Lakh (1966). The two were required to compete in the song Baje more payal and realising that she was up for a tough challenge — dancing alongside the seasoned Helen was no mean task — Babita took refuge in her makeup room and began crying silently.

Helen went across to Babita and pacified her, reassuring her that she would do her best to help her, if needed. And the shooting resumed in earnest.

One of my favourite dance-offs features Rishi Kapoor and Tariq in Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977). Not because it is a closely contested dance: Tariq struggles with a guitar and some simplified choreography while an agile and spirited Rishi vigorously pranced around on the outlandish set.

However, I enjoyed this lopsided dance-off because it straddled a medley of four songs that got etched in my youthful memory — Chand mera dil, Aa dil kya mehfil hai tere, Tum kya jaano mohabbat kya hai and the blatant Mama Mia spin off, Mil gaya humko saathi.

Two good dancers in a film and it’s difficult for a director to resist showcasing a dance-off in his film. Yash Chopra included one, too, in Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) in which the wordless Dance Of Envy had Karisma Kapoor dancing up a storm alongside Madhuri Dixit.

I would have liked to see Madhuri dance alongside Sridevi too, and maybe Deepika match steps with Katrina. Dance-offs may be a bit of a cliche but they are part of the not-so-secret sauce that has for long spiced up our films.

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