Old, abandoned industrial zones, dockyards and dhobi ghats (washermen’s colonies) are typical tropes of Mumbai as a city on the cinema screen. But then there are nine boys, locking, popping, B-boying and break-dancing to a Marathi song with shipping containers as their stage. That has never happened before.
The Indian film industry is no stranger to dancing. If anything, Bollywood has come to be known as the world’s “song-and-dance” film industry.
Headspins, handglides, windmills or backspins, however, have never existed on Indian cinema’s menu of dance moves.
But Samit Kakkad’s new Marathi-language film, Aayna Ka Bayna – The Dance Film, will soon introduce these and more through the story of the struggles and triumphs of nine young boys who are sent to a correctional facility in Mumbai. In Kakkad’s words, the movie is “all about winning”.
In a way, the struggle represents that of Rohan Rokade, 33, a dancer, choreographer and serial reality-show winner, who rose from a middle-class Indian family that had negative views about a career in the arts.
Rokade, who also has a hip-hop dance school in Mumbai, has choreographed all seven songs in the film. Slickly shot, stylistic and sharp, the songs represent both the spirit of the city and the vigour of the dance style.
Rokade says he has been dancing ever since he “found his feet”. His parents, however, wanted him to follow a more dependable career in hotel management.
“Even though I did a two-year course in hotel management and catering, my feet refused to stay on the ground,” says Rokade, laughing. He eventually made his way to Los Angeles in 2004 on a stage-show tour, where he found expression in hip-hop dance.
“I was instantly intrigued. While I was there, I did a basic course, a workshop and bought DVDs on street dancing. When I came back, I put my heart and soul into it and, with my two super-enthusiastic nephews at home, I got an act together. Since then it has only gotten bigger,” Rokade says.
In 2007, Rokade and his group won the popular dance reality show Boogie Woogie, and went on to win it four more times. Rokade had managed to put hip-hop on centre stage.
Kakkad says he got a huge response for the audition – 400 people showed up, a sign of the spread of hip-hop across Mumbai. Incidentally, one of Rokade’s nephews and four students from his dance school were signed for the movie.
Kakkad believes the growing popularity of hip-hop can be attributed to reality shows and pervasive media.
“People watch videos on YouTube, they know about it,” explains Kakkad.
“Not everybody wants to dance in the Bollywood style. They want a different identity. And street dancing does have a sense of irreverence. There is aggression in this form. If you look at India right now, there is a lot of anger. People get angry about the smallest of things but this is a better way to express it – I think it’s better to battle-dance than set a bus on fire. There is a message and there is fun in it. There is action, too, but in the form of dance.”
Nalasopara, a small Mumbai suburb, has become a breeding ground for hip-hop dance schools, including Rokade’s. Like any other popular fad, his establishment has spawned more than a dozen copycat schools in the hope that the fairy dust of his talent and magical success will rub off on them, too.
Teaching dancers how to act in front of a camera, however, is an entirely different matter.
Before starting the shoot, Kakkad made sure the boys attended a 20-day acting workshop. The only hitch, which Kakkad finds funny in retrospect, involved the long hair all the nine teenagers sported.
“They all had long hair hanging below the shoulders. I told them that they needed to get haircuts and they were appalled and said if their hair was chopped off it would rob them of all their style. But, eventually, they came around – one of the kids even shaved his head,” he says.
Rokade, in spite of his success that has led him to pursue other choreography projects, feels that his preferred style of dancing is not taken seriously enough in India. “Some think B-boying is not dancing,” he says. “But even the ‘stunts’, as some call it, are done on a beat. Where there is rhythm, there is dance.”